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27 Apr 2007 : Column 1206

Mr. Goodwill: Surely the whole point of the Bill is to remove swathes of legislation that place restrictions on the discretion of local authorities. The problem with parking is that the book is so thick that many local authorities do not always manage to comply with every letter of the law.

Gillian Merron: The Bill is about signs in local areas. I believe, as I presume the hon. Gentleman does, that local matters are best dealt with locally.

Good design of roads and streets is a fundamental issue. We support the principle of avoiding unnecessary roadside clutter and minimising the environmental impact of traffic signs, as far as that is safe and reasonably practicable. The challenge at the national and local levels is to promote and deliver good practice. It is true that it is not unusual to see unnecessary or badly designed traffic management measures, traffic signs or other street furniture. However, improvements will not be delivered by the proposed legislation.

The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton implored us to put the Bill through Committee, but I note that he just voted against that for the Health and Safety (Offences) Bill.

Alan Duncan: I did not vote in that Division.

Gillian Merron: Then I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. There are certainly many hon. Members on his Benches who did do that, but I hope that he will forgive my error.

Streetscape and highway design have been rightly devolved to local authorities, other than on roads for which the Secretary of State is the highways authority, such as motorways, which are the responsibility of the Highways Agency. We have concerns that the proposed Bill has the potential to confuse practitioners, because of ambiguities about its application and duplication of existing legislation and guidance. The Secretary of State already provides guidance on streetscape and highways design, which is aimed at, and readily available to, highways authorities. We do not need new legislation to continue doing that. The Department for Transport provides guidance on a wide range of design issues through documents such local transport notes, traffic advisory leaflets, the “Traffic Signs Manual” and other good practice guides and manuals, including the recently published “Manual for Streets”, to which I shall make further reference.

The proposed Bill would extend to Wales as well as England. However, the matters covered in the Bill are almost entirely devolved to the Welsh Assembly Government. The Highways Agency, an executive agency of the Department for Transport, designs and maintains roads in accordance with its “Design Manual for Roads and Bridges”, which provides detailed design advice and standards. The advice is reviewed periodically to ensure that it is consistent with best practice. Further updates and chapters, including landscape and townscape assessment, are scheduled for publication over the next few years.

Alan Duncan: What the Minister is saying is absolutely accurate and I do not deny it for a second, but can she point to elements of guidance that encourage minimalist rather than brutalist designs?
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There seems to be no downward pressure in those guidelines, and that is what I am seeking.

Gillian Merron: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has seen it, but I would refer him to the “Manual for Streets”, which makes the exact point that he has just made.

Volume 10 of the “Design Manual for Roads and Bridges” includes urban design elements. Environmental design considerations have been an integral part of scheme development in the Highways Agency since its inception. The agency seeks to mitigate potentially adverse impacts and to take opportunities to enhance the environment, while of course taking account of value for money. The Department for Transport works with many other organisations to produce guidance on highway designs and improve the quality of highways and their surroundings. We heard earlier about the excellent work by English Heritage in “Streets for All”, which has been applauded by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton, who was good enough to write to the Minister of State, Department for Transport, last year, making the same comments.

We accept the need for improvement, and we continue to develop further guidance. The House will wish to be made aware of three key projects that have a direct, positive impact. I have already referred to the first—the “Manual for Streets”, which I launched at the end of March 2007 with the Institution of Highways and Transportation. It was drawn up with the full co-operation of stakeholders, including local authorities. It encourages a fresh approach to residential street design, and it demonstrates the Government’s commitment to introduce changes to current design criteria to ensure that the designing of streets as attractive places in their own right is a priority. It gives guidance on the use of traffic signs and the importance of minimising street clutter.

The second project underpins further good practice guidance, specifically to address the concerns that have been expressed today about traffic signs, signals and the paraphernalia of local traffic management schemes, which may be excessive and detract from the streetscape. The new guidance is expected to be published in autumn this year. The third piece of work is advice covering the installation of pedestrian guard railing which, again, will be published later this year. All the guidance produced by the Department for Transport and its partners is aimed at, and is readily available to, local authorities and others. Publications are widely publicised and described on the Department’s website. A number of them are available free of charge, and others are available for purchase from the relevant publisher, usually The Stationery Office.

Clause 2 requires highway authorities to publish

The requirements in the clause are unnecessary, because local authorities are responsible for designing schemes to fit local circumstances, making important assessments—and this is all about balance—about the level of risk and the balance of social, environmental,
27 Apr 2007 : Column 1208
economic and safety requirements. They already have a range of powers and duties under which they can maintain and improve the road network, manage its use and the activities that take place on it. We have a range of legislation, from the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 and the Traffic Management Act 2004 to the new Town and Country Planning (Control of Advertisements) (England) Regulations 2007 which, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) will be interested to know, came into force on 6 April this year. The skills of designers in that area have been called into question, and the Department is working with the Institute of Highway Incorporate Engineers Institute to promote a new qualification in traffic signing skills. The Department has also recently endorsed new computer software which, it is hoped, will help sign designers to use and understand the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2002 more easily.

Alan Duncan: If, for instance, a council has poor aesthetic judgment and appears indifferent to a contractor putting signs in the wrong place—perhaps on the edge of a kerb instead of on the back line of a road—to whom, under the guidelines, can people turn for redress?

Gillian Merron: Clearly, the local authority is the responsible authority, and it is accountable to its electorate. In the debate, the hon. Gentleman expressed a wish that authorities or elected officials should be able to seek support. Obviously, they can do so. The Department for Transport is freely accessible to people who wish to call it, e-mail it, write to it, or look at its website, to offer the advice required. We must understand, however, that this is a local authority matter, and many of the hon. Gentleman’s comments concerned the quality of the running of local authorities, so he may wish to pursue the matter elsewhere.

The hon. Gentleman raised, too, the accountability of highways officers, who are accountable to elected members of local authorities because they are local authority employees. One could make that comment about any local authority, so I do not think that it is necessary for the House to legislate in that regard.

Local transport plans also include a section on the importance of addressing quality of life issues, including the quality of public spaces and better streetscapes. The guidance specifically mentions the need for careful consideration to be given to the design and use of traffic management equipment. It makes it clear that local authority proposals should not just minimise adverse impacts on the physical environment but actively enhance it. It states that local authorities should ensure that their local transport plans minimise the impact of clutter on the street scene, and encourages the use of local street audits.

The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton referred to revising the Audit Commission’s remit, which is not contained in his Bill. He also referred to the Rutland bypass and said that three quarters of signs were removed soon after its opening. That is why it has been included in the Department’s streetscape project, leading to good practice guidance later this year. We are pleased that we have been able to play our part, and that Rutland has been so helpful.

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Alan Duncan: I am grateful to the Minister for thanking Rutland. In turn, may I thank her and her Department for letting aspects of that design, such as minimalist street furniture on a roundabout, be part of a specific Department for Transport study? I hope that the contribution of my little county has been helpful in formulating the policies that will now come from her Department.

Gillian Merron: That is something on which we are all in agreement.

The Bill is unnecessary, an over-regulation and a duplication. Under existing powers, the Secretary of State already provides guidance and advice on design of streetscape and highways, which is widely used by local authorities. Government planning policy already states that local planning authorities should publish local design policies. The Department for Transport’s local transport plan guidance to local authorities explains the importance of better streetscapes and minimising street clutter, and encourages street audits.

I emphasise that local authorities are responsible for designing highway schemes to fit local circumstances, and already have a range of powers and duties to do so under existing legislation. As I have said, we should never forget that local authorities are accountable, and are encouraged to consult locally on new schemes. The challenge is for authorities to apply legislation and guidance through local policies in such a way that they contribute to the quality of public spaces, through good design, using street signs as and where appropriate and maintaining streets and highways. I therefore ask the House to oppose the Bill.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 10, Noes 10.
Division No. 101]
[1.53 pm


Baker, Norman
Davies, Philip
Duncan, Alan
Greenway, Mr. John
Howarth, David
Hughes, Simon
Kramer, Susan
Lilley, rh Mr. Peter
Spink, Bob
Willetts, Mr. David
Tellers for the Ayes:

Angela Watkinson and
Mr. Robert Goodwill

Ainsworth, rh Mr. Bob
Balls, Ed
Brennan, Kevin
David, Mr. Wayne
Hill, rh Keith
Hoon, rh Mr. Geoffrey
Linton, Martin
McCarthy-Fry, Sarah
Merron, Gillian
Pound, Stephen
Tellers for the Noes:

Liz Blackman and
Steve McCabe

It appearing on the report of the Division that 40 Members were not present, Mr. Deputy Speaker declared that the Question was not decided, and the business under consideration stood over until the next sitting of the House.

BA Flight 149

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Liz Blackman.]

2.4 pm

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): It is good to have a marginally elongated time for the Adjournment debate, although I assure you that I have no intention of occupying all the available time, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Such a tactic is perhaps best reserved for other occasions.

It is good to see that the duty Minister is present. The happy coincidence is that, as a defence Minister, he dealt with some of these issues in a different capacity earlier in his ministerial career. This is a serious matter concerning British Airways flight 149, which landed in Kuwait when it was on its way to Kuala Lumpur. It took off from Heathrow on 1 August 1990 at 6.15 pm, having been delayed for a couple of hours. The captain blamed an air conditioning problem, but has subsequently said that he was hoping that the flight would be pulled. However, the plane did take off at 6.15 pm and arrived in Kuwait City at 3 am the following morning.

As a consequence of the decision to land, the plane was subsequently destroyed, and the crew and passengers were captured by Iraqi troops. They were held for weeks in pretty awful conditions. However distant we are from those events, all of us can recall the terrible picture that filled the newspapers of that poor five-year-old lad, Stuart Lockwood, being patted by Saddam Hussein while clearly traumatised.

I shall discuss what some of the crew and passengers suffered in due course. The official version of events is that the situation could not have been foreseen, that it was unhelpful and unfortunate for those involved, and that the plane was landed before the invasion of Kuwait had taken place. The Prime Minister at the time, Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, said:

Already at that time—within 24 hours—significant doubts had been expressed in senior circles about whether that was the case.

I give credit to the present Deputy Prime Minister, who I believe was the Labour party’s shadow transport secretary, for investigating that matter and pursuing it over a couple of years. He raised the matter in the House and in letters to the next Prime Minister, John Major.

In a reply dated 2 October 1992, Mr. Major said the following:

I shall show that that is not the case. He also said:

I shall show that that is not the case. He continued:

I shall show that that is not the case. In addition, he said:

Unless semantics are brought into play, I can show that that is not the case.

A further letter from the then Prime Minister to the present Deputy Prime Minister, dated 5 April 1993, pulled back slightly from that position in accepting that the sound of tanks and gunfire had been heard at an earlier point than had been implied by the previous letter. It is worth pointing out that the crew and passengers said that when the planed touched down, they heard the sound of tanks and gunfire. That is evidence that the invasion was well under way by that point, and did not take place some hours later, as Mrs. Thatcher, as Prime Minister, had suggested.

There has been an investigation into this matter on and off by a journalist called Steve Davis. The Minister may, or may not, have seen an article in The Mail on Sunday last year. There was also a documentary on the matter which was put on at a ridiculously late hour by the BBC. That referred to the views of what might be called special forces.

I have here today copies of affidavits signed by members of special forces to the effect that they were on that plane and were put there to carry out a mission at the request of the British Government. It is not my intention, as you will understand, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to give the names of those particular individuals. That would be irresponsible. However, because the Government have continually denied that this took place, I do want to read out the relevant sections that demonstrate that, in fact, the version of events is as the journalist has said, rather than Ministers have continually suggested.

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is displaying commendable restraint in suggesting that he would not read out publicly the names of suggested members of United Kingdom special forces, but presumably he is going to ask me to investigate those allegations. Therefore, I hope that he will make those names available to me at any rate.

Norman Baker: That is a perfectly reasonable request. I need to check that with those who have signed the document, but the Minister is right to make that request and I will reflect on it.

I will read out the relevant sections, which do not reveal any sensitive details, I hope. Soldier A, let me say, for lack of a better expression, says:

A further affidavit, from someone who I shall for the purpose of the debate call Soldier B, says:

That refers to the affidavits.

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