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10 pm

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con): To explain why I sought to secure this debate about the rather recondite subject of the Highways Agency and its costs in relation to pedestrian crossings, it might help if I begin with several tales from my constituency experience of the agency’s activities. Before I do even that, however, I should explain, although I am sure that the Minister is already aware of it, that while the agency is mainly preoccupied by running motorways across the length and breadth of our country, it also happens to run the A31/A35, which passes through my constituency. That is not a motorway; indeed, for most of its length in my constituency, it is an ordinary country road with one lane in each direction. It runs through a number of villages in my constituency in which, the Minister will be unsurprised to hear, there are people dwelling. I shall return to that point in a moment because it is one of which the Highways Agency is largely ignorant.

My first tale comes from some years ago when my constituents wanted to continue to run the Melplash agricultural show. Circumstances necessitated holding the show at a site near the A35. I was preoccupied for some months with trying to persuade the Highways Agency to allow the show to continue. Why did I do so? Because the Highways Agency was extremely concerned about the prospect of its road being used by people to approach the show and then to leave the show at its conclusion. The agency thought it a gross affront to its road that people should use it to go to a local agricultural show.

My second tale is about the A35 Communities Initiative, which is a group of town and parish councils formed to investigate how we could improve the lives of people living in the various villages and towns affected by the A35. After a lot of shoving and heaving over a couple of years, we managed to persuade the Highways Agency—much against its will, I think—to accede to Hyder Consulting conducting a route investigation. After a great deal of negotiation, we managed to get Hyder Consulting to produce a report acknowledging the existence of people along the A35 in my constituency. The report made many recommendations about how the people affected by the A35 could have their lives ameliorated by various measures, including by putting pedestrian crossings at certain places.

Before I get on to pedestrian crossings themselves, I should say that while most—not all, it is true—recommendations in the report, and the whole spirit of the report, were accepted by the Highways Agency, the recommendations have never been implemented. I discern no inclination on the part of the agency ever to implement them, which raises the question of why it bothered to delude us by having the report conducted at considerable public expense.

I turn to the precise question of pedestrian crossings. I became interested in it because in Winterbourne Abbas, a village in my constituency, there is a pedestrian crossing to enable one to cross the road near a school at one end of the village. However, the village is long, and nobody has the funds to build paths all the way along it. In any case, parents emerging from the housing estate where
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many of the parents and children live would be unable to approach the school on any kind of path that went all the way through the village because of how the road lies, and the way in which it is bisected by other roads.

There is a long-standing desire to have a pedestrian crossing at the other end of the village, where traffic proceeds rather more quickly, and where parents could cross in safety with their children. I began to agitate for a pedestrian crossing at the other end of the village, as any local MP would do. I have never framed my correspondence, but I shall in due course publish my correspondence on the subject, because it would amuse the nation. It took quite a long time to discover why the Highways Agency was so extremely reluctant to play ball with regard to my eminently consensual suggestion that the parish council, and perhaps the district council and others that I could find, would contribute towards the cost of a pedestrian crossing, if only the Highways Agency would tell me how much it would cost to put in place.

It was not until the eighth or ninth round of correspondence that the Highways Agency eventually admitted that, based on another pedestrian crossing that it was building in Chideock in another part of my constituency, the likelihood was that the pedestrian crossing would cost rather more than £110,000. When I discovered that pedestrian crossings are put in place by my county council on identical roads for less than half that sum, and when I looked at other pedestrian crossings up and down the country built by local authorities and found no other body that put in place pedestrian crossings for £110,000, I became suspicious of that figure, so I asked for breakdowns. It took a long time, but eventually I got those breakdowns, and I discovered some very interesting facts, among them the fact that the Highways Agency spends a very large amount of money at the design stage of the pedestrian crossing.

I admit that there are many things in the world that it is complicated to design, but I rather fancy that if the Minister and I sat down together, not long after the end of the debate, we could between us, without huge technical expertise, design a pedestrian crossing. The idea is that there should be a thing crossing a road with some lines on it, and a little post at either side. It is not terribly complicated. At the time, I envisaged—I shall provide evidence that this may not be true—that the Highways Agency had in its possession a personal computer, a modern device that enables one to replicate the design of one pedestrian crossing in another location. A remarkable achievement of the computer is its ability to replicate things quite easily, and not at great expense. I have a strong suspicion that one pedestrian crossing is remarkably similar to another, so I doubt that it really is necessary to spend a lot on design.

I shall not regale the Minister with large numbers of other examples of the absurdity built into the costing. I reported the matter to the National Audit Office, and held discussions with it. I also reported the matter to the Public Accounts Committee. I believe that the NAO is now conducting another of its many inquiries into the Highways Agency. I rather suspect that the fate that will befall this inquiry is that which befell previous inquiries—namely that the Highways Agency was sublimely uninterested in the fact that the NAO has repeatedly shown that the agency is grossly financially incompetent and ineffective. That is not a partisan remark; it appears to have been the case for many years.

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I want to return to the subject of human beings. It was not until recently that I really began to understand the Highways Agency’s management of the A35. That comes about as a result of the remarkable example of the waste management site at Gore Cross, proposed by the county council. I do not for a moment expect the Minister to have the slightest idea about Gore Cross, unless someone has briefed him very thoroughly. It is a location at the end of St. Andrew’s road in Bridport. The Minister is incredibly well-briefed; he is nodding. He clearly knows about Gore Cross. That is the site proposed by the county council for a waste transfer station much needed in West Dorset. Great expense is being incurred as a result of there not being a waste transfer station in the locality of Bridport.

This is rather a long-running issue; it has been going on for about 13 or 14 years. Repeatedly, the county council and SITA, the contractor, have attempted to establish a waste transfer site in one place or another that is quite evidently impossible. I was responsible in part for making sure that they did not put it on a place that was, among other things, an area of outstanding natural beauty, very close to a site of special scientific interest, an environmentally sensitive area and, while we are at it, on a world heritage coastline.

Once the county council and SITA had been persuaded that the location was not ideal, they began to prospect for other locations. There is a universal view, as far as I can make out, among the people—I stress the word again—living in Bridport that it would be nifty if the waste transfer site were not in the midst of the population, but were by the main road. But this is not the proposition. The proposition is that the waste transfer station should be at the end of a road which is highly populated with parents, children and shoppers. The road has a Co-op and is about to get a Lidl shop on it. It has a school close by, and there are many residences.

Why, one may ask, is the county council attempting to put a waste transfer site in a place to which everyone in the locality objects, when it could quite easily be put at various points along the main road? Answer: the Highways Agency. Why? Because the Highways Agency is unique among public bodies, it seems, in having powers of direction, so that if a planning application is made and the Highways Agency says nay, that’s it. No further discussion. It is not like other statutory consultees. It does not take a view; it can direct.

So the county council lives in mortal terror of the Highways Agency, and instead of investigating where the waste transfer station could be located that would suit the people of Bridport, the county council has investigated the much more salient question, from its point of view, of where the waste transfer site could be located that would suit the Highways Agency. The Highways Agency has a strong principle, which is that it would not have a waste transfer site anywhere on its road because it did not want people using its road. It did not want people going into its road or coming off its road. In fact, its concept is of taking cars from one end of the country to the other and hoping that no people will get on to it and sully the beauty of its road.

The Highways Agency therefore made it clear to the county council that it would object to, and hence stop, any proposal to have the waste transfer station on its road. I assumed that it must also have done some work, because it is the body that spends thousands of pounds designing pedestrian crossings. One would expect that it
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had done some studies of the effects of putting the waste transfer site on the road or in the midst of the population. However, it has recently come to light—this I find astonishing—that through the 11, 12 or 13 years of its objections to having the waste transfer site put on or next to its road, the Highways Agency has never conducted a study of the effects of putting it in different places.

When a study was done, not by the Highways Agency, but by the local residents using Google Earth, another device unknown to the Highways Agency, and a population gravity study, unknown to the Highways Agency, it transpired that in all probability putting the waste transfer site at the end of St. Andrew’s road, where people do not want it, will impose more strain on the roundabout which is the single most strained element of the A35 in my constituency, than if it were put on the main road—a fact unknown to the Highways Agency because it had never done the work. It did not feel that it needed to do the work, perhaps partly because of the same cause as the problem with designing pedestrian crossings.

Perhaps the Highways Agency does not possess a computer. Perhaps it does not know anything about Google Earth. Perhaps it does not have the capacity to do such studies. I do not know. Whether it has the capacity or not, it did not feel the need to think about the subject. Why not? Because it has the power of direction.

The tale that I am presenting to the Minister through this tiny microcosm of my constituency is this: here is a very large and expensive body that may or may not be very good at running motorways—I do not know; I have nothing to do with motorways—but that is no good whatsoever at running the A35, which is a road that has to do with human beings. The Highways Agency is no good at running the road because it cannot, at reasonable cost, do things that are needed for those human beings, it does not make studies that are necessary to determine how to deal with those human beings, it does not recognise the existence of those human beings and is not interested in them, and it does not have the technical competence to do things which it ought to do before it takes views that lead to years and years of public expenditure and public distress.

Amusing as the tale is, in the end it is disgraceful. That is not how public administration should be in the United Kingdom. I am sure it is not what the Minister wants, and I cannot believe that it is what the Highways Agency itself would like to see. So it seems clear that we need a thorough investigation of why the Highways Agency is so very bad at running such a road, and what is to be done about it.

10.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Paul Clark): I congratulate the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) on securing the debate. If the operations of the Highways Agency were as pure, clear and precise as he describes them, I would be the first to agree that the situation is totally unacceptable. I accept, however, that we need to be ever vigilant about how we can improve matters and about efficiency, as hon. and right hon. Members would rightly expect us to be. Indeed, the notes before me about pedestrian crossing installations and Highways Agency costs recognise the great interest that the right hon. Gentleman has taken in that work.

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By way of dealing with a number of points that have been raised about costs, design and the process, I shall gently point out the role of the Highways Agency in covering roads such as the A35. Many strategic roads involve communities that have ended up becoming divided over time, and that is true of some of the communities that the right hon. Gentleman represents. They have been divided by higher volumes of traffic and by heavy goods vehicles, which have developed even more so. The Highways Agency is aware of the severance issues and, by working with local stakeholders, is genuinely seeking solutions to improve the lives and well-being of the inhabitants of those towns and villages.

I shall come to the specifics of the undoubted delay to one scheme that the utilisation programme identified. However, since 2005, the agency has installed on average six crossings a year, and it has a programme to deliver a similar number this year. When determining the location of such facilities, the agency must be mindful of many impacts, but of delays and increased congestion on the strategic road network in particular. Any increase in journey times can add significant costs to road users and adversely affect the country’s economic competitiveness and growth.

The need to reduce transport’s emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases must be considered at the same time. There have been several proposals on the A35 in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency—at Winterbourne Abbas, as he said, and at Chideock. A route management study for the A30 and A35 which the agency produced was undertaken to see the exact problems that pedestrians in those villages and along those routes experience. As I am sure he is aware, the agency has worked closely with local parish councils and other stakeholders to find solutions.

There have been substantial exchanges of correspondence about Chideock, some of which I have seen. Perhaps I shall publish it, too. As I said at the outset, I accept that work, particularly on the Chideock scheme, has been slower than planned. The agency and the Department for Transport recognise that. However, the agency is seeking to resolve a number of land acquisition issues that are preventing the scheme from progressing, and, additionally, I assure the right hon. Gentleman that an environmental study on the impact of the proposed crossing will be completed by May.

The agency in the south-west region has confirmed to me—of course, in preparing for this debate I wanted all the facts—that the installation of a crossing at Chideock is included in its delivery programme for 2009-10. I am sure that that will be welcomed by many of the residents whom the right hon. Gentleman represents. However, delivery this year is subject to the resolution of the land issues, which will probably require a compulsory purchase order. I am told that that will definitely be published in June. Should a public inquiry be necessary in response to the compulsory purchase order, that would add further delay, but I sincerely hope that all concerned, including the right hon. Gentleman, will help this process by trying as far as possible to ensure that the compulsory purchase order proceeds—although the order may not have been anticipated at the time of the agency’s director writing to the right hon. Gentleman.

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Of the other road crossings that are proposed in the four-year programme, three are to be installed along the A35 within or near the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency: Honiton and the villages of Winterbourne Abbas and Morcombelake will also benefit from new pedestrian facilities. The scheme at Honiton is in the 2009-10 programme, with Winterbourne Abbas and Morcombelake planned to follow in 2011-12.

Let me turn to costs, which are extremely relevant and important to the points that the right hon. Gentleman has raised. In 2008, the National Audit Office carried out a review of the costs of pedestrian crossing facilities installed by the Highways Agency, and the agency provided a full contribution to the report. It is my understanding that the NAO’s report has not been published and is not in the public domain. The agency gave details of 23 crossings that have been installed since 2006, of which a small number—I think four—were selected by the NAO for closer scrutiny. The agency fully recognises that the costs of installing pedestrian crossings on the strategic road network will inevitably be more than on local authority roads or less busy roads.

Mr. Letwin: I am grateful to the Minister for what he says about the crossings at Winterbourne Abbas and Morcombelake, which are both newsworthy locally. However, I do not understand his last point. Why is an ordinary road with two lanes that is owned by the Highways Agency inevitably more expensive to cross than a road that happens to be run by a county council? Neither he nor I would be able to see any difference between those two roads, so what is the mysterious thing that happens when a road is owned by the Highways Agency that means that the cost doubles?

Paul Clark: Let me pick up on those points. The Highways Agency has to meet certain requirements. Some of the crossings that it would install are not as described in the story that appeared in The Daily Telegraph, which refers to putting a zebra crossing outside the school in Winterbourne Abbas. The right hon. Gentleman referred to mind-boggling costs but, as he will be well aware, we are not talking about a zebra crossing with cans of black and white paint and some sticks with lights on them. The agency is required to install crossings that meet the requirements of roads that, for example, have higher volumes of traffic and heavy goods vehicles on them. That is for the safety of those crossing the road—his constituents—as well for the safety of those who are travelling along that road.

Mr. Letwin: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again, because this process may be more productive than simply exchanging speeches. As far as I can make out, having inquired into this matter quite precisely, the pelican crossings—they are controlled crossings, not zebra crossings—installed by the county council on roads in Dorset, and in Somerset and Devon, are so identical to the pelican crossings installed by the Highways Agency that I venture to suggest that if he and I went on a tour, neither of us would be able to see any difference between them. I say that because I have been on such a tour: if necessary, I will produce for him photographs that will, I think, satisfy him that there is no observable difference.

Paul Clark: I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s point, but almost no two crossings will involve exactly the same costs. [Interruption.] Well, they will not. I
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understand that it makes good copy to talk about designs on a computer that can be copied, and of course the designs are the same in basis. However, in the case of one of the crossings to which I have referred, for example, we have run into problems of land purchasing and compulsory purchase orders, which add to the cost. In addition, the work on a given area of road varies, for instance in the use of sensors, the distances involved and the depth of the anti-skid provision required. Those things add to the cost when compared with putting in such crossings on more minor roads.

It could well be that part of the strategic network that the Highways Agency has to deal with requires work at night and far more robust traffic management procedures while the work is being carried out. It has to be recognised that there are a range of issues that add to the costs to the Highways Agency of putting in place crossings on the strategic road network. I mentioned the depth of the anti-skid provision, but we must remember also that more signals need to be provided on parts of the strategic road network than on other roads. I believe that these facts were made clear in submissions to the NAO, and when it picked out a number of schemes that were being delivered by the Highways Agency it found a range of costs. If I recall correctly, they ran from approximately £80,000 to some £200,000 because of complications with given schemes.

As I have indicated, although we use the generic term “pedestrian crossing”, there are different types of crossing. We have discussed puffin signal-controlled crossings and toucan crossings for the use of pedestrians and cyclists, and those types are more suited to the strategic network than other crossings that might be used elsewhere. We need to compare like with like.

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