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12.56 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Gillian Merron): I congratulate the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on introducing this Bill, which has excited much interest and local pride. I have heard him speak twice now on this issue and I know how passionate he is about promoting his constituency, as many of us are about our own constituencies. I pay tribute to him for that.

For the benefit of the House, I wish to clarify that although Ordnance Survey Great Britain and Ordnance Survey Northern Ireland are two distinct organisations, I will refer to them collectively as “Ordnance Survey” during the rest of this debate.

There is no doubt about the importance of historic counties, towns and villages as part of our history and cultural life. I agree that they provide many people with a strong sense of identity and local pride. Indeed, the continued use of traditional county names and areas in tourism, sport, business, literature and the arts, to name but a few examples, bears testament to that. Of course, we should all be proud of where we come from. However, we have difficulty with the detail of the Bill. It is not appropriate or practical to introduce legislation to require either traffic authorities to include historic information on traffic signs or Ordnance Survey to show the same on its current mapping. The Government therefore oppose the Bill.

The Bill is disadvantaged by a number of critical omissions. It is noteworthy that it does not propose a point in time at which to freeze-frame history, to be represented both on current Ordnance Survey mapping and at the roadside. The Bill is further inconvenienced by the fact that the boundaries of areas themselves have changed many times over the centuries, and in many cases now bear little or no resemblance to their original incarnation. That would also present the difficulty of selecting a boundary date that would be acceptable to all.

A further difficulty is that the Bill would require by law the complex differences between the geography of traditional counties and present-day administrative areas to be represented on current Ordnance Survey maps. That sounds good in theory, but in reality it would not be possible to present that amount of information in a clear, unambiguous and meaningful way. But that is just the beginning of the difficulties. The Bill goes beyond proposals advanced in a previous Bill by suggesting that historic town and village boundaries might also be included on the same map, although again without any clues as to a starting date.

It should go without saying that most town and village boundaries have shifted constantly as a direct result of their economic and demographic evolution. In many cases, residents of the same town may have very different understandings of their town boundary, depending on their age. In London, for example, the area covered by the vast metropolis that we see today bears no relation at all to the myriad unconnected towns and villages that have gradually spread and evolved. Long-time Southall residents in their 80s will hardly share the same view of the boundary of Southall as a teenage resident. So whose memory does the Bill intend to satisfy? The boundaries of such
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areas—some of which appear in the Domesday Book—would be impossible to track through the ages on one map.

Ordnance Survey’s products give business, individuals and Government the information they need to make key decisions. Ordnance Survey’s primary role is to represent today’s world by providing on its mapping current geographic referencing information, including administrative boundaries and the corresponding electoral boundaries. Ordnance Survey mapping has many uses in commercial, public and private life; it is a working tool for industry and an aid to Government—for example, helping local or national government in debates, discussion and decisions about where to site new developments. It is not a decorative feature to frame and hang on the wall. A key point, which I emphasise to the House, is that the emergency services rely on accurate and up to date Ordnance Survey mapping data to reach the scene of an incident in the shortest possible time. I am sure that the hon. Member for Romford would not want to cause them difficulties in that regard.

Mr. Randall: I am slightly disappointed to hear that the Government will not let the Bill go into Committee, where some of those points could be examined, but do not the emergency services use postcode information rather than Ordnance Survey maps these days?

Gillian Merron: I was trying to point out that the Bill’s provisions do not take into account the practicalities of Ordnance Survey mapping, which is not intended for historical purposes; it is a current working tool, which includes use by the emergency services.

Andrew Miller: There are some extremely well-researched websites with good sources of information about historic boundaries. The Ordnance Survey, on the other hand, should have a forward-looking approach to its work. We should commend it for that work, which includes engagement with schoolchildren, but ancient boundaries are better covered in the information available on the web.

Gillian Merron: I thank my hon. Friend. Sensible as ever, he reminds us of the point that I wanted to emphasise. Although the Bill is well intentioned and worthy, there are difficulties in translating it into practice. To attempt to represent history on one map would be unworkable. As my hon. Friend suggested, people who want to study historic boundaries on Ordnance Survey maps can easily obtain historical mapping at a reasonable cost from the Ordnance Survey’s archives, or through its commercial partners.

Mr. Randall: The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) said that we should be looking forward, not back, but if I am correct in thinking that battle sites are marked on Ordnance Survey maps, which surely relates to the historical side of things, is not his argument slightly flawed?

Gillian Merron: Historic battle sites—although not current ones—are indeed marked, particularly those in Yorkshire.

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Mr. Dismore: In terms of the history of the Ordnance Survey, can my hon. Friend confirm that it was set up in the early 19th century to provide military maps for the armed forces? It is thus not surprising either that battle sites are indicated, as are ancient tumuli of one sort or another, or that we can see the ancient county boundaries on which the old regiments were founded.

Gillian Merron: I bow to my hon. Friend’s expertise in this area and thank him for that contribution.

Turning to the requirement that the Bill makes for historic boundaries to be represented on traffic signs, there are only two distinct categories of sign that may lawfully be placed on the roadside: outdoor advertisements and traffic signs. Outdoor advertisements are defined by the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, as amended, as being solely or partly for the purpose of advertisement, announcement or direction. The placing of those signs is controlled by the local planning authority. Traffic signs, on the other hand, are not subject to local planning controls. They are clearly defined in the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 and their prescribed purpose is simple: they act as

Clearly that is about getting people and vehicles around safely and efficiently. Traffic signs have no other lawful purpose.

Mr. Heald: Clearly it is important that there should not be confusion and that local authorities should not be overburdened, but, given that the Minister would be able to specify what the traffic signs could be like, is it not worth at least examining the issue properly in Committee?

Gillian Merron: Perhaps it would be helpful if I confirmed to the hon. Gentleman that existing regulations already allow the addition of crests, coats of arms and items of geographical or historical interest—perhaps even in the style of “Market Town of Romford”, which may please the hon. Member for Romford. Hon. Members should consider the existing regulations before going down another road—if I can use that expression—which might not be helpful.

Traffic signs must either conform to the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2002, which specify the appearance and meaning of traffic signs, or be especially authorised by the Secretary of State. Decisions on what restrictions should be applied and signed, and where, are a matter for local discretion. Decisions about the placing of information signs at particular locations are the responsibility of the relevant traffic and highway authority. The only specific statutory requirement for local authorities to place traffic signs is that they must provide signs that are adequate to indicate the provisions of their local traffic regulation orders, so that drivers will not unwittingly contravene local traffic regulations and be unfairly penalised for doing so—a concern that hon. Members often raise on behalf of their constituents.

To blur the edges with additional, historic boundary signs would bring the risk of confusing road users,
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thereby defeating the primary purpose for which the signs are prescribed. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues who are supporting him will bear that in mind when thinking about how to respond. Traffic signs are not provided for commemorative purposes, nor should they be. They are used to guide and control traffic and to promote road safety. They should be used only where they can usefully serve these functions.

Mr. Heath: I am most grateful for that definition of the utility of traffic signs, but what is the utility of district council signs that welcome people to some administrative area that does not relate to any historical or cultural entity?

Gillian Merron: We are here to discuss the issue of traffic signs, which, together with mapping, is one of the primary aspects of the Bill, so I will confine myself to that subject. The House has often discussed concerns about the proliferation of traffic signs at the roadside, and hon. Members have raised complaints with me about an unavoidable increase in the number of traffic signs on our highways. The proposed legislative changes required by the Bill are in direct conflict with the fundamental need to maintain the delicate balance between minimising sign clutter and providing signs that meet the changing needs of all local authorities on behalf of the people they serve, at a time when there is pressure to meet the ever-increasing demand as more people seek to use the roads.

That brings me on to the most important issue when considering the consequences—no doubt unintended—of the Bill: road safety. Given the shift of boundaries over the centuries, putting in place additional signs to illustrate superseded county, town and village boundaries might be confusing to drivers. It would also contribute yet more towards unfortunate and unnecessary street and sign clutter.

Traffic signs can be distractions in themselves, so we must minimise their number and keep their message short. The information that they convey must be concise and consistent for all road users and presented in a manner that can be assimilated quickly. For example, it is prescribed that a county boundary sign shall contain a maximum of eight words, not including the place name. We also require that direction signs should not show more than five destinations, or six at most, because even six destinations take up to four seconds to read. Clearly, a car driver speeding at the maximum limit of 70 mph should not be distracted any more than is absolutely necessary. Every moment spent reading a traffic sign is a moment spent without the driver’s undivided attention on the road ahead. It goes without saying that the potential hazards for other vehicles and people on the road are almost endless.

Let me offer the hon. Member for Romford some comfort. I am sure that he has noted that the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill is continuing its parliamentary passage in another place. The Bill will allow local authorities to change the names of electoral areas following consultation. I hope that he will ensure that his party gives the Bill its full support, because it might help to address the point that he is putting forward on behalf of his constituents.

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The hon. Gentleman’s Bill is based on sentiment—although I regret having to describe it in such a way. It has been drafted without any consideration of the consequences of what it would achieve. An attempt to represent the plethora of historical county, town and village boundaries in one hit on Ordnance Survey mapping could not be achieved and would only confuse the reader. Further to our discussion about battle sites, let me make it clear that they are shown when they are relevant in a tourism context. There are thus restrictions on the appearance even of battle sites on Ordnance Survey mapping. There would be no benefit in attempting the cartographic feat suggested by the hon. Gentleman, especially given that historical mapping can be obtained easily and at relatively little cost.

Following consultation on the development of the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2002, we took the decision that only existing boundaries should be marked by traffic signs, not those that have been superseded. I still believe that that was the right decision. Traffic signs should be provided solely for the purposes of road safety and effective traffic management, and should convey clear, concise and consistent information to all road users.

Regrettably, the Bill fails to acknowledge the financial implications for stretched local government budgets of putting in place additional traffic signs. Providing in legislation a requirement for local authorities to place signs indicating the location of what some might regard as obsolete boundaries would be disproportionate and burdensome.

We appreciate and respect the fact that many people, including the hon. Member for Romford, hold their heritage very dear—rightly so. We do not want to take that away from them. However, it is clear that the open road is not the place to conduct a history lesson. I hope that the House will agree that the Bill should be opposed.

1.14 pm

Andrew Rosindell: I thank the hon. Members who took part in today’s debate, which has been useful and interesting. It has highlighted many issues, and it shows that there is common concern about the issue across the parties, and across the country. That is why I am very disappointed by the Minister’s conclusion. I think that she may have missed the real point of what I am proposing. It appears that she has concluded that if my Bill became law, there would be many more traffic signs posted all around the country—that there would be more clutter, and greater expense. That is not the intention behind my Bill.

The intention is to ensure that our signs accurately reflect the counties, towns and villages that truly exist. To make a point that was ably emphasised by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), if what I am proposing is unnecessary, surely the signs that currently exist are also unnecessary. I propose that they gradually be replaced over time, when they need to be. There will not be a huge expense at one go, but a gradual evolution from signs that show the name of a council, to signs that show the name of the town. We also want signs that show the name of the county not to be far away from the traditional boundary that most people accept.

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Gillian Merron: I do not doubt the hon. Gentleman’s intention. However, the Bill would do something rather different from what he intends: it would impose a requirement on traffic authorities. That is the point that I sought to make.

Andrew Rosindell: I re-emphasise the fact that the change does not need to happen in one go. It can take place gradually over a long period. There is no need to replace every sign overnight with a brand new one. New signs can be erected as and when they are needed. If the Minister visits my borough, the London borough of Havering, as I hope she will, she will see a sign saying “Welcome to Havering” as she enters Romford. Havering is a London borough; it is a construction for administrative purposes. The sign should really say, “Welcome to Romford”. It should show the Romford crest, not the borough logo, which holds no meaning or sense of identity for anybody.

The measure is not too complicated. A number of hon. Members have said that the provisions are rather difficult, and that the changes are not easy to make, but I do not accept that. With the political will, and with an understanding of what is needed, the changes can be made very easily over a period of time, and the benefits will be enormous.

Mr. Heald: The Minister, and voices from all parts of the House, mentioned the importance of history, and said that the matters before us are important, but expressed concerns about the detail. Does my hon. Friend agree that surely what should happen next is that amendments should be discussed in Committee? Surely there is no real excuse for voting against the Bill.

Andrew Rosindell: I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks. He is, of course, absolutely correct. It would be a great pity if the Bill did not go to Committee, where we could properly analyse and look into the points that have been made. The Minister acknowledged that there is merit in much of what I propose. Members of all parties have spoken passionately today, and have highlighted many local anomalies and confusions that have resulted from the current situation. To ignore them and let them continue would be completely irresponsible. We have an opportunity today. The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) made an important point; I believe that she is from the same county as the Minister—Lincolnshire, I think.

Shona McIsaac: Not administratively.

Andrew Rosindell: Okay. There is confusion across the country, and although I was aware of the confusion in Lincolnshire, Humberside, and Yorkshire, I did not have detailed knowledge of it. However, I do have detailed knowledge of the ridiculous confusions within Essex and London, and of the loss of identity that has resulted from the current situation.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) referred to Lord Heseltine’s administrative changes, and said that much of the problem was to do with mistakes made then. He may have a point, but there is cross-party concern about the issue, which we
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all understand from experience of our locality and the constituencies that we represent. I merely introduced the Bill in the hope that we can make progress and look at the issue properly. Of course, we can make changes in Committee if things prove impractical, as the Minister suggested.

Andrew Miller: As I said, I am sympathetic to the Bill’s aims. I would be grateful, however, if the hon. Gentleman told the House what assessment he has made of its regulatory impact on local authorities and agencies such as Ordnance Survey. We in Parliament have a duty to look at the regulatory impact of anything that we propose.

Andrew Rosindell: Ordnance Survey is a private company —[ Interruption. ] As far as I am aware, it is an independently operated company, and we have no ultimate power to tell it what to do. At the end of the day, we have to ensure that accuracy is available. At the moment, it is not. Local authorities do one thing, and Ordnance Survey does something else. People have a clear idea about where their identity lies, and that cannot be ignored. The Government, however, appear to have decided that they want to kill the opportunity to take the Bill one stage further and look at it in greater detail—I accept that flexibility is required—so that it is practical, and does not create burdens and expenditure that no one wants.

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