Previous Section Index Home Page

The Bill is not expensive—if anything, it is cost-cutting. I am not aware of a single council other than Kensington and Chelsea that has a written highways policy against which subsequent planning decisions are measured. Councils have never stopped to think, “How do I want my highways area to look?” or “Do I want to go for the highest number of signs possible or the lowest?” As soon as they are made to
27 Apr 2007 : Column 1200
stop and think, they say “Well, I’d rather have fewer.” Under the Bill, every council would be required to publish a highways policy, which could be three or four pages—it does not have to be a glossy publication. Invariably, any such considered policy would reflect the council’s desire to see fewer road signs, less metal and far less visual pollution. Within the community of local government, best practice would emerge and that model, which would most likely be a minimalist policy, would be adopted.

For instance, the Government—I am full of admiration and praise for this measure—working with English Heritage, the Department for Transport and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, have published “Streets for All”, which has also had regional editions. It is a really good document that evidences how streets can be made to look better, with advice such as using wood instead of metal. It asks what kind of paving should be used on the pavement and whether the colour matches the environment. It asks what kind of traffic lights should be used and whether pelican crossings have to have great big gantries with the traffic light, as they invariably do, or whether there can just be a little button on the pole by the pavement with a green man and a red man—it could be a woman; a green androgynous figure—to tell people that they are safe to cross the road. All those examples of best practice have been well researched and well documented and they are used, but highways authorities do not embrace them sufficiently. I want to see best practice emerge, and if councils had highways policies there would be a yardstick against which officers’ advice would have to be tempered and tested.

Crucially, there is also the Audit Commission. In my constituency a few years ago, a contractor put in signs for a 7.5 tonne weight limit. Almost every sign was in the wrong place according to the advice and guidelines given by Government. Instead of being set back on the hedge line of a nice country lane, they were right up on the corner where inevitably passing traffic—horseboxes, mowers and so on—would dent them and knock them down. They looked disgusting. Even when there was a tiny country lane with two stone houses 5 m across from each other, two signs were put up when one would have done. These people are morons and they are not following the rules. The trouble is, when I went to the Audit Commission with an assessment of what the contractors had done, the money that they had spent and the standards of their decisions, the Audit Commission said, “We have no scope within our remit to hold them to account.”

Unless a council has real leadership, there are problems with highways officers, bad design, poor practice and even wrongly sited signs that are just left there, and no one has any form of redress. There is a great vacuum in terms of setting good standards in local government. If we have to take such a measure—in many ways, I regret that we do—I want the Audit Commission to embrace the built environment in its assessment of a council. I want to see the Audit Commission’s remit revised.

The Bill would require councils to audit their sign population, and it would compel the Department for Transport to offer professional advice to any councillor who wished to question the validity of his local highway officer’s interpretation of the rules. It is important for an audit of signs to be held. It would not
27 Apr 2007 : Column 1201
have to be done very often, but the problem is that it has never happened. When a new sign is put up, no one stops to think about what signs are already there, and no one tries to balance more modern signs with the older ones.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): As part of that audit procedure, does my hon. Friend think that note should be taken of safety implications, particularly as regards highway signage? The plethora of information and signage is often a distraction to drivers, and it can be detrimental and dangerous when people are trying to look at carriageway markings, at whether there are variable speed limits, and at all sorts of information right across the spectrum of their windscreen. That plethora of signs can actually do more harm than good.

Alan Duncan: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Any pilot could tell us of the well known phenomenon of the danger of having too many lights on a runway. My bĂȘte noire is Kettering business park junction, which needs a stick of dynamite. It is very dangerous; there is a great deal of rubber on the road, because there are two junctions right next to each other, each with 30 or 40 traffic lights. Drivers look at the lights ahead, rather than the set of lights that they are approaching. The authorities have so overbuilt the junction that instead of making it safe, they have made it dangerous.

The same applies to many other roads. Let me give an example: we do not need always need a triangular sign to tell us when there is a road joining from the left. These days, at such points, there is usually an illuminated bollard, and one can normally see whether a car is waiting to turn out of the road. That is the most helpful visual aid to safe driving. Having too many signs is an impediment to safe driving, and it looks horrid, so it is less safe and less attractive. Highway authorities ought to have to audit the signs, so that they know what is there. If some of the signs are attractive and old-fashioned, the council may want to keep them, because it may think that they add to the environment. When councils undertake the audit, they will suddenly find milestones and other features of our streetscape that they will want to preserve and maintain.

It is important to have an audit of signs, a written highways policy, and somewhere councillors can turn to when they feel that they are being bamboozled by highway officers. I am not saying that everyone should be able to phone up the Department for Transport, but I phone it from time to time, and the expertise in the Department is very good. There are some very good people there who know the issues inside out and who roll their eyes in despair at some of the things that are done by councils. I ask them, “Will you please visit my constituency and explain to these people why what they are doing is wrong, and is not even required under the regulations that they think they’re enforcing?” Understandably, people at the Department answer that they just do not have the people to visit all the councils. Frankly, they would need an army if they were to try to stop councils doing all the bad things that they do. A councillor needs to be able to pick up the phone, explain the issue and ask an expert in the Department for Transport whether a sign is really obligatory or not.
27 Apr 2007 : Column 1202

I can give another example. A councillor wanted to make a lovely little country back lane one-way, because it was a bit of a rat run in peak hours. She was told that all the signs would have to be illuminated, that 20 signs would be needed, and that it would cost £100,000. It could have been done for £3,000, and I do not like well intentioned councillors being misled by professional officers. My Bill tries to ensure that in the future, councillors will no longer be bamboozled by tasteless philistines.

I estimate that as many as half of what I call non-directional signs, or warning signs, could be uprooted for the better. I would like many of them to be uprooted. I want a change in the culture of road design, for which the expertise exists. Britain has got some good roads. The paradox is that some rural areas are covered in signs, yet when I go to Newcastle—I am shadow Minister for Tyneside—it has minimalist street furniture on roundabouts. That urban area is an example to many rural areas.

I would like us all to become clutter busters. I would like more than half our signs to be uprooted. Most clearway signs are unnecessary. If they are put up on a main road, two further “end of clearway” signs have to be erected on every road that leads into the main road. That is unnecessary and visually ghastly.

If the Bill gets a Second Reading, we will have less confusion, less maintenance, less visual pollution and a much better and safer built environment. Securing the Second Reading debate today was unexpected but I hope that the Government do not object to the Bill. If they destroy the measure, the danger is that we shall have more dangerous roads and that all our constituencies will end up looking less attractive.

We all love our constituencies and feel strongly about local issues. The Bill has implications for every hon. Member and presents an opportunity to do something in our constituencies that makes life happier and pleasanter.

Angela Watkinson: My hon. Friend knows that London local authorities receive parcels of money for specific uses from Transport for London. For example, a London local authority will get a parcel of money for red tarmacking a carriageway or speed bumps, and because the money cannot be used for any other purpose, the authority will look for somewhere to put speed bumps when it possibly did not intend to have them. That takes away decision making from local authorities.

Alan Duncan: My hon. Friend is right. One of the problems of a stream of Government money for specific purposes is that it can have perverse outcomes. I had a similar experience in my constituency, where a lump of money was given for safer routes to school. To my great dismay, red paint was applied all over a country lane where kids had walked for centuries perfectly happily with their satchels or ridden on their bikes. It indicated where children were supposed to walk on their way to school. I cannot imagine a more moronic scheme or use of money. Kids will walk where they want to walk and not follow expensive red paint, even if it has desecrated my nice rural constituency.

My Bill tries to secure a culture change and I hope that the Government will let it go into Committee. Why
27 Apr 2007 : Column 1203
do we not thrash it out in Committee? If the Government want to destroy it later and introduce a their Bill on the subject, that is fine. I ask the Whip what the point is of destroying a well intentioned Bill, which is not party political. It affects every constituency and will make our constituencies and roads more attractive and safer. I hope that the House will give me leave to take the Bill into Committee so that we can raise the profile and significance of an issue about which many people have never thought. Now that they have, they will say, “Yeah, he’s got a point.”

1.29 pm

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) on his idiosyncratic Bill, which I support because it touches on an important issue. The hon. Gentleman may like to know that I encouraged my county council a year or two ago to identify and remove unnecessary signage in my constituency, of which there is plenty, not least for the reasons that he gave. There are signs where, for example, speed limit termination points have changed and the old poles have been left, with the signs removed. There are signs warning of cattle where farms are no longer operating. There is plenty of signage like that, which brings the system into disrepute, can be a danger and creates clutter in rural areas.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the signage itself is, by and large, correct and useful. I would offer one caveat: the sign that supposedly bans pedestrians, which is a red circle with a human figure in it. Pedestrians, who may not be familiar with the highway code, see that as an invitation to walk along that route, rather than as a prohibition, as the sign is intended to convey. I wish the Department for Transport would deal with that sign, although I do not suppose it will.

Signs are sometimes used by highway officials, to use the hon. Gentleman’s term, as an alternative to providing proper road safety measures. Pressure comes from a councillor, a road safety group or residents who point out a problem that may require a change to road layout or some other expensive remedy. The solution provided by highways officers is to erect a sign as a means of showing the people concerned that something has been done. That achieves very little, but it demonstrates that the council in question has done something. Many signs have been erected to get residents groups off highway officers’ backs, rather than to achieve a road safety objective. There are too many signs that say the equivalent of “Do not throw stones at this notice”, and very little else.

There is a growing tendency towards the inclusion of advertisements on highway land, which is encouraged by some highway authorities. That is regrettable. We see advertisements on roundabouts, for example, which adds to clutter and, as well as disfiguring the environment, presents a potential hazard for motorists, who have to take in those signs as well as relevant ones on the highway.

I agree that the Bill should be subjected to scrutiny. If the Government have something against it, they should set out their objections in Committee. The hon. Gentleman’s argument has been undermined slightly
27 Apr 2007 : Column 1204
by his colleague, the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), who argued exactly the opposite on the previous Bill.

1.32 pm

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) on securing a Second Reading of his Bill. That gives me my first opportunity to speak from the Dispatch Box, but I expect that it will be short-lived.

There can be few people who have not noticed the plethora of signs that seem to proliferate around our cities, countryside and villages. In my village in north Yorkshire in recent months electricity poles have been removed, which has enhanced the rural environment, although British Telecom has erected additional telegraph poles for lines that were previously carried by the electricity poles.

Two weeks ago, I spent a day in Scarborough in my constituency with people from the Scarborough blind and partially sighted centre. I experienced what it is like to be blind. I wore glasses which almost entirely prevented me from seeing anything. The first 10 minutes were quite a novelty, but after that it was very difficult to get around. I was fortunate to have a lady holding me by the arm. The problem was not just the pavement cafes with their tables and chairs, cars parked on the pavement, or dog dirt, which blind people often have to contend with. The problem was also all the signposts that seem to sprout up from the pavement and cause blind people such difficulty.

In Scarborough we have non-drinking zones, or rather, zones where police can ask people to desist from drinking and, if necessary, confiscate drink. The problem facing Scarborough borough council when it brought the zones into force was that nobody noticed the signs. There were so many signs already that people did not notice the new ones. The council had to come up with a fluorescent green sign, which it hoped would be more noticeable. That has been only partially successful because there are so many signs around the town—advertising signs, road signs, parking signs and so on.

When a local authority advocates the common-sense approach suggested by my hon. Friend, it often finds that it becomes tied up in bureaucracy, rules and regulations. The Minister knows that Scarborough borough council has put in an application to decriminalise parking in the town. When it put in signs to remind people which zones are residents’ zones and which zones are disc zones, it thought that in many cases it would make sense to use an existing pole—if there is a street lamp standard or speed limit sign, why not put the parking sign on the same post?

Unfortunately, that common-sense approach was undone by two enterprising former police officers with tape measures, who managed to overturn a number of fines for people, including members of their families, because the signs were, for example, 30 cm too far apart. Scarborough borough council has therefore had to put up new signs, despite nobody having been misled about the parking regime. Nobody has written to me saying, “I have been done. I did not realise that it was a two-hour disc zone. I did not realise that we had to pay
27 Apr 2007 : Column 1205
to park.” The regulations are so prescriptive that they do not allow local authorities to show a degree of discretion in putting up signs. If the Bill becomes law, I hope that we will examine co-ordinating the erection of street lighting and signs and the maintenance of parking regimes.

Scarborough borough council has done a lot of work, and although this matter may not be at the top of the Minister’s in-tray, I hope that it is successful in getting its decriminalisation through, which will restore a little bit of sanity in Scarborough, where people are parking on yellow lines willy-nilly and there is a feeling that the parking regime is not being enforced. This may not happen today, but I look forward to the Minister letting me know that she has managed to look at the improvements in Scarborough.

I hope that we can use a bit of common sense. We already have bi-party support in the House, and perhaps the Minister can make that tri-party support. I think that people up and down the country would be pleased to see a little bit of common sense on the statute book for a change.

Alan Duncan: I omitted to say—I hope that this adds weight to what my hon. Friend has just said and persuades the Minister to support the Bill—that the Bill has the enthusiastic support of English Heritage, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the RAC Foundation, which is very thoughtful on road matters. I hope that the Government do not want to defy that good sense.

Mr. Goodwill: We have discussed our streets being neat and uncluttered, and those words can also be used to describe my hon. Friend—I will not suggest which hon. Members could be used to describe the streets as they are at the moment.

I commend the Bill to the House.

1.38 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Gillian Merron): I assure the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) that there is plenty of common sense on the issue. I have no doubt that the principle behind Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) is good, and I share his wish to see greater progress. I note that a range of organisations has expressed enthusiasm, which is understandable, but I respectfully suggest that that enthusiasm relates to the principle, the issue and the practice that is already in place, rather than a wish to see new legislation.

The Bill is unnecessary; it duplicates existing legislation; and given the drafting, it lacks the teeth to do the job. I understand why the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton wants to do the job, but the Bill does not make the right references. To the credit of the hon. Gentleman, he has paid tribute to a number of actions taken by the Department for Transport, for which I am grateful. However, I assure the House that action to improve and sustain highway design and the streetscape is absolutely a Government policy objective, and I shall be very happy to explain what we are doing about it in practice.


Next Section Index Home Page