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Road Safety (West Derbyshire)

11 am

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of road safety, which is an important subject in every hon. Member's constituency. It is particularly important in my constituency, partly because of the huge number of visitors to the Peak district every year—an average of 20 million—which brings associated road problems. I want to raise several issues today; I have given the Minister notice of some of them. I will end by suggesting something for him to take away and consider.

It is worth mentioning some of the different factors relating to the problems in the Derbyshire dales and West Derbyshire, which is the only area in Derbyshire where the number of accidents is highest on Sundays, when it is double the midweek figure. That is unusual. Similarly, the Derbyshire dales is the only area to have fewer accidents in the darkest months of the year, such as December, which is also unusual.

Overall in this country we have a good record on road safety. I was, for a time, responsible for road safety in the Department of Transport. I remember launching, with the then Secretary of State, Cecil Parkinson, the "Kill Your Speed. Not a Child" campaign, which is still running 14 years on. There is no doubt that speed can be a big contributory factor in a lot of road accidents, which we need to get across.

I am worried about a developing trend of fatalities on rural roads classes B and C. I have expressed my concern to the chief constable of Derbyshire that siting speed cameras on the A6 will cause motorists to leave the main roads for some of the back roads. I wonder whether that is reflected in what is happening. It is difficult to say that just because road accidents increase in one year, something is going drastically wrong; I am not here to make that point. Each accident that occurs is devastating to the family involved, but individual circumstances could have led to that accident.

In 2001, there were 585 accidents on rural roads classes B and C, and in 2002, the latest year for which I have the figures, there were 632. That is a sizeable increase in the space of a year. I do not have the figures to show whether that increase is continuing, but I am concerned about the trend from those two figures alone. I hope that the Minister will reassure me, or, if he cannot, that he will say that we should be considering the reasons why there is an increase in accidents on rural roads. Is it because people are using rural roads to avoid speed cameras? I do not know, but I am concerned. The Minister does not think that that was the reason and I accept his point, but I want to raise that concern.

I want to raise specific areas of concern in my constituency. I start with the A5012, the Via Gellia road between Cromford and Newhaven. In three months this year, between 11 September and 24 November, there were four fatalities on that road. I have taken up the issue with the Derbyshire constabulary, and a letter that I received yesterday informed me that the investigations on some of the fatalities are not yet completed but that it is clear that the collisions occurred at different locations and at different times of the day. Inspector Constantine went on to say that, in view of the number of fatalities
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in such a short time, an urgent meeting took place between the police and representatives of Derbyshire county council on Friday 26 November 2004.

I accept that that shows there was not a long history of fatalities on the road, but four fatalities in the space of three months should concern us all, especially those of us who are interested in good road safety in our country. I know that that includes both the Minister and me.

A local cyclist, Mr. Orford, wrote to me in April to say that he was very concerned about the road, well before the accidents that cost the lives of four young people. I   have a reply from Derbyshire county council dated 5   August—again, before the terrible tragedies took place—in which it said that

The work has now been brought forward, which I am pleased about, but it is a tragedy that that has been as a result of four fatalities. Arnold Crosby, the chairman of Cromford parish council, rightly expressed the views of the local community:

I accept that something is being done; I regret that it has taken four fatalities for that to happen.

I have raised the position of other roads in this Chamber before. The A623 Calver road basically splits Calver in two, and residents have long been campaigning for a 30  mph limit on the section. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), Chairman of the Select Committee on Transport, chaired a public meeting in Calver and lent her support to the campaign. It was an effective public meeting, and a lot of work was   done. However, it was frustrating for the local community that, despite all that work, the county council refused to accept the arguments for a 30 mph limit.

One problem about speed limits is that they seem to be assessed in different ways in different places. Why is there a 30  mph limit just as one leaves the A38, on the A6 going up to Belper? It is a wide road with good footpaths alongside it. In other areas—such as the A623 through Calver, where the road runs between the village and school with only a narrow-cut path at certain points—we cannot get a 30  mph limit. If a local community makes a good case for a restriction in speed limits, that should be carefully considered and, if possible, accepted. That is what the local community wants, rather than the county council saying that, for whatever reasons, it knows better and the answer is no.

Similarly, I mentioned a crossing on the A50, which is a new road that links Derby and Stoke. It has become known as the M1-M6 link road, yet the crossing at Aston is a disgrace. It is a gap between the two
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carriageways where people are expected to dodge the traffic. It is appalling and action should be taken. Action should have been taken during construction of the road, but for some reason it was not.

Because my constituency is so large—more than 350 sq miles—I have to express concerns about several different roads. Since the building of the A50, another problem that has occurred is the increase in traffic on the A515, which goes from Sudbury up to Buxton. There has been an inordinate number of extra accidents on the stretch of road between Sudbury and Ashbourne, usually involving heavy goods vehicles. That has also been the case on the stretch of road above that, coming down through Fenny Bentley. There was a very serious incident there a few months ago in which two people lost their lives. The county council now suggests raising the bridge at Fenny Bentley, but there is grave concern among local residents that that will lead to an increase in heavy traffic going through Fenny Bentley and the surrounding areas.

I believe that one way around the problem would be to address the Ashbourne bypass. Part of Ashbourne was bypassed some years ago. Unfortunately, at that stage the county council would not put the remaining section forward as a programme that needed to be completed. I think that completion of the Ashbourne bypass would make Ashbourne safer, and we should at the same time address some of the other problems that the road suffers.

The A517 is the road from Belper to Ashbourne. It goes through Hulland Ward in particular. Again, there has been a plea from the local community and the parish council because they desperately want a 30 mph limit on the part of the road that goes through the village. I do not see why that should not be agreed to, considering the 30 mph limits on roads in various other parts of the county.

Whenever a road accident takes place, it inflicts random devastation on a family. There are no easy answers to such devastation; it is particular to the family involved. Because there are so many road accidents, we do not tend to hear about every one. Let us say that there is a rail crash in which 10 or 20 people are killed. I think that Kevin Delaney of the RAC Foundation said that the trouble is that although there are as many as 10 road deaths a day, they do not happen in the same place at the same time and they happen for a variety of reasons, which more often than not relate to human error, so they do not receive the publicity that one accident on public transport may receive. That is a problem. As I explained, there have been four accidents on the Via Gellia in a very short space of time. We need to address that section of road and do what needs to be done.

A few years ago, just south of the village of Duffield on the A6, there was a spot of road on which there were a number of fatalities. No one could understand why fatalities were taking place on that spot of road. They ranged from a young person to a man of 45 driving a Volvo estate who lived in Duffield. The Highways Agency reviewed the whole road and came up with the idea of re-marking parts of it. I admit to being fairly sceptical at the time about whether just re-marking the road would have an impact, but it did. Since re-marking has taken place, which did not cost a huge amount of money, there has not been a fatality at that spot.
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I have given a lot of thought to the matter of road and car accidents, and something is lacking. We have the air accidents investigation branch and the marine accident investigation branch, and we now have the rail accident investigation branch—the RAIB. It is time for the Government to think about establishing a CAIB—a car accident investigation branch. That could have an effect where there are a number of fatalities, perhaps in a short period, such as on the Via Gellia—the A5012. When that sort of signal comes through to the Department for Transport, it would be possible for the CAIB to bring together national experts in road safety to look at a particular section of road, so that decisions can be taken quickly and maintenance can be carried out on that section of road, at the discretion of the Department. There are certain blackspots around the country where bringing a national context of what has worked in one part of the country to bear in another part of the country could play a useful role in road safety.

We all want greater road safety. Given the number of cars that we now drive in this country, it is incredible that, overall, road accidents have been falling. I realise that there has been a slight increase in road accidents; the Government want to address that trend, and everyone wants them to succeed in that. It is partly about getting the message of road safety across.

We have special problems in West Derbyshire because of the amount of rural roads, which are sometimes not given the same priority as main roads in urban areas. In constituencies such as West Derbyshire and areas such as the Derbyshire dales that get a lot of visitors, this is one of the most serious issues, and I hope that the Minister can give some reassurance on how the Government will address it.

11. 17 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson) : I congratulate the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) on securing the debate, and on the consensual way in which he raised the key issues on behalf of his constituents and people in the wider area of the Peak district. I am also grateful to him for giving notice of some of the issues he wanted to raise. I will try to cover all of them in the time that I have available, and if there are any that I do not have time to cover, I will jot him a line on them.

With regard to the hon. Gentleman's final comments, I hope that we can get some political consensus on road safety. A couple of weeks ago we published the Road Safety Bill, and I hope that we will join together in common interest on many of the issues that it addresses. Over the past 30 years, under Governments of different political persuasions, there has been a gradual decline in the number of people killed and seriously injured on our roads. This country has a good record; we have one of the best road safety records in the world, and I am very proud of that. We are equal with countries such as Sweden and Holland and very much better than many other European countries.

However, 3,500 people were killed on our roads last year, and 34,000 people were seriously injured. We set ourselves a target of reducing those figures by 40 per cent. between 2000 and 2010, and I am pleased to say that there has been a 22 per cent. reduction in just three
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and a half years. We are making good progress, but we have much more to do. One of the concerns is the number of deaths that there still are on the roads. That figure has plateaued out in the past few years; it is a trend that has also been spotted in a number of other European countries.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of rural roads. They are a particular problem. Our motorways are our safest roads, and rural roads have the most problems. There are particular reasons for that. In his area, and in some other areas such as Wales, Devon and North Yorkshire, there are problems to do with motor cyclists on the roads. Many of the deaths are single-vehicle crashes where someone comes off the road and kills themselves. In some cases they kill other people as well.

Mr. McLoughlin : I am grateful to the Minister, because I had intended to raise that in my speech. I think I am right in saying that of the fatalities in Derbyshire, a third are motor cyclists. That is high, and is partly because of the visitors that we get to the dales.

Mr. Jamieson : Yes indeed. Particularly in areas such as the Peak district and others to which people are attracted for recreational purposes, motor cycle accidents are disturbingly high. They are not always youngsters; they are men of a certain age, who return to cycling and sometimes do not do so safely.

Apart from the A50 trunk road, which is the responsibility of the Highways Agency and my Department, all the roads that the hon. Gentleman mentioned are the responsibility of Derbyshire county council. Derbyshire county council is one of the best performing local transport authorities and has a good record on road safety. The number of people killed or seriously injured on Derbyshire's roads fell from 608 in 2002 to 579 in 2003, which is a welcome 14 per cent. reduction. However, as I said earlier, it is not enough, and all of us must do more. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the campaigns that Derbyshire county council has had: the "Speed kills", "Think bike" and "To die for" road safety campaigns.

In 2003 the county council invested £1.8 million of capital funding in safety schemes through the local transport plans, supported by my Department, and it has added another £1.25 million of revenue spending on those schemes. More widely, the integrated transport funding awarded to Derbyshire over the five-year life of its current local transport plan amounts to more than £33 million. The authority has seen an increase of over 300 per cent. in real terms in its local transport plan settlement since 2000–01. As a consequence of that investment, the council has been able to bring down some of the casualty figures although, as the hon. Gentleman said in his opening remarks, there are some ongoing problems.

I turn now to some of the specific issues that have been raised, not necessarily in the order in which they were raised. The A50 Sudbury pedestrian subway is on a 70 mph road approaching an island, and looks extremely dangerous. The number of casualties there has lowered, partly because people are probably too scared to cross. As the hon. Gentleman may know, the Highways Agency is working on a plan to start construction in 2007–08 of a subway under the road, which will be a great benefit to people in that area. I hope then that they will not be too frightened to cross the road.
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Turning to the question of road safety on the A5012, the Via Gellia, the accident record did not suggest a deterioration in safety before the recent spate of fatal accidents. Indeed, the monitoring of previous schemes implemented by Derbyshire county council on the road indicated a reduction in casualties. However, there have been four fatal accidents over the last two months, three of them involving relatively young people. As the hon. Gentleman said, each one of those is a tragedy for their families and the wider communities in which they live. A   programme of measures is proposed, including consistent signing of significant bends, advisory speed limits, rumble strips, chevron signing and measures at both ends of the Via Gellia to advise drivers of road characteristics.

As the hon. Gentleman knows and raised earlier in the debate, a number of similar measures were taken on the A6, showing considerable benefits. He mentioned the double fatal accident on the A515, the Fenny Bentley road, and Derbyshire county council intends to address the problem of the low bridge by reconstructing the structure to provide sufficient clearance. He raised the argument that that might attract more heavy goods vehicles; all I can say is that he cannot have it both ways. The authority can, if it wants, create a restriction on vehicles going down that road, but that would have to be taken up by the county council.

The A515—the Sudbury-Buxton road—is the main north-south route through West Derbyshire, and mobile safety cameras were introduced on a section of it last year. Derbyshire county council is also investigating a number of potential junction improvements and has reviewed the signing and lining along a large proportion of the route. More significantly, it is examining the case for an A515 bypass of Ashbourne. However, it is up to the council to decide whether to make a bid for funding through the local transport plan process. If a bid is submitted, we would consider its merits in the light of competing priorities and the availability of funds.

The A623—the Calver road—has been identified by the Derbyshire safety camera partnership as a route that would benefit from mobile safety camera enforcement, which I understand is now actively taking place. A number of other measures have also been implemented to reduce the number of casualties. In Calver village, surface dressing of the carriageway seems to have been effective. There have been no reported injury accidents since works were undertaken in 2003, compared with three reported injury accidents during the three-year period before that.

I understand that Calver parish council is pressing for the current 40 mph speed limit through the village to be reduced to 30 mph, but the county council does not believe that to be appropriate. The hon. Gentleman said that the county council was too remote to make such a
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decision, but a decision from Westminster or Whitehall would be even more remote. Such decisions are most properly made at the local democratic level. It is up to the parish council to continue to make its case and get   public support behind it. If he has not done so already, the hon. Gentleman may want to look at our consultation about draft revised guidance on the setting of speed limits, which may be relevant and inform further discussion and debate.

The sections of the road through Stoney Middleton and Middleton dale were resurfaced last year, and surface dressing has been carried out west of Tideswell at White Rake bends. At Sparrowpit bend, signing and lining improvements together with high skid-resistant surfacing have proved effective in reducing the number of casualties.

I now turn briefly to issues relating to the Peak District national park. I am told that the Peak district is   the second most visited national park in the world—one in Japan has more visitors—and attracts some 22 million visitors each year. It is not surprising that a large proportion of those visitors arrive by car; I have done so on a number of occasions and it is a part of the world that I find particularly attractive. Therefore, motor traffic and associated road safety problems are particular concerns to all of us. It is no coincidence that most road casualties occur during the summer and on weekends, which is the reverse of the general pattern on the roads.

Derbyshire county council, through the South Pennines integrated transport strategy, is trying to reduce the impact of car travel on the Peak park by developing and promoting more sustainable modes of travel. Other measures being explored as part of the strategy include the introduction of traffic restraint on through and minor roads.

Mr. McLoughlin : I realise that the Minister is up against the time constraint, but the idea that I mentioned about the CAIB is an interesting one. He does not have much time left in the debate, but will he take that idea away and consider it?

Mr. Jamieson : We have considered a CAIB carefully and implement a similar policy for air, marine and rail transport. Casualties and accidents on the road are examined closely by the police, and the Highways Agency studies particular incidents on its roads. We learn a lot from that, and some of the good schemes on our roads are a result of learning from past casualties.

This has been a short but useful debate. If the hon. Gentleman would let me know if I have not been able to cover any issues in the available time, I should be pleased to correspond with him.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.
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