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11 Nov 2009 : Column 322

Residential Roads (Adoption)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.- (Mr. Watts.)

7.58 pm

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I am most grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to Mr. Speaker for giving me permission to hold this debate, which is on the difficulty that local authorities face in adopting roads in new residential developments. That is a very big issue for my constituency, but in researching the subject on behalf of my constituents, I have discovered that it is a big issue across the country. That is why I want to draw it to the Minister's attention.

The Government define an adopted road as a road maintainable at public expense, but the problem is that, in taking over roads into which taxpayers' money quite rightly is to be put, local authorities find it very difficult to get building developers to get the roads up to the requisite standard before the local authorities take the roads into public ownership.

This is not a party political issue; it is an issue of major concern not only to my constituents but to constituents around the country who live on new residential estates. The Government are keen to see many more residential estates being built around the country, not least in the growth areas coming out of London, including the one in which the Kettering constituency is located. Kettering's housing numbers are due to increase from 36,000 at present to 49,100 by 2021-an increase of one third-so many thousands of my constituents are or will be living on new residential estates, and will therefore be affected by what I think is a loophole in the legislation-the Highways Act 1980.

That loophole means, in effect, that there will be hundreds of thousands of residents across the country living on new housing estates whose houses will be located on roads that will have substandard pavements, highways and lighting for many years to come. The mechanism in the Highways Act for roads to be improved to a suitable standard on new residential estates is section 38. Developers are encouraged to enter into a section 38 agreement with the appropriate highways authority which, for constituencies such as mine in the shires, would be the local county council.

However, there does not seem to be any legal requirement for the developers to enter into such a section 38 agreement to have the roads adopted. Even if they do enter into a section 38 agreement with the local authority, local authorities are not able, without the developer's consent, to access the bonded funds that the developers lodge with the local county council. So unless a developer goes bust, there is very little the local highways authority can do to pressurise the developer into improving the standard of the roads.

The other surprising thing I found out in my research for this debate is that the Department for Transport does not know the extent of the problem. In a parliamentary answer to me on 22 October the Minister stated:

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The most recent note from the House of Commons Library on the subject says:

If nothing else comes from the debate tonight, I very much hope that the Department for Transport will at least try to ascertain the real extent of the problem, which surely must get worse as more houses are built throughout the country.

I see that some Labour Members are present to listen to the debate. If at any point they wish to highlight local examples of the difficulties that they have had with unadopted roads, I shall be delighted to take interventions.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is one of my parliamentary neighbours. The issue that he is highlighting is of great concern to my constituents too, in the new development at Bridleways. In various other streets, particularly Gorse close and Kingsthorpe, we have seen the results of a road not being brought up to adoptable standard. Thirty years or so down the line, people are living in real difficulties because of the inadequate roads and subsidence and drainage problems.

Mr. Hollobone: I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for that helpful intervention; if she wishes to come back to me at another point, she will be welcome to do so. The estate that she highlights is an important example of how the process is going wrong. There has been extensive coverage of this in the distinguished local newspaper, the Northampton Chronicle and Echo. I have spoken to Councillor David Mackintosh, who represents Ecton Brook ward and, like the hon. Lady, has been heavily involved in the issue. I am sure she will correct me if I get this wrong, but I think that essentially the estate in her constituency comprises some 100 homes, many of which are designated for social housing but which stand empty because of a dispute involving the developers, the housing association and the county council. I understand that there has not been a handover from the developer, McCann Homes, to Genesis Homes, which is the housing association involved. For understandable reasons, Genesis Homes and the county council do not want to take responsibility for the roads on the estate because they are not of a suitable standard.

Ms Keeble: It is a bit more complicated than that. The borough council is also involved because it does not want dustcarts to go down the roads. The upshot of all this is that several social housing tenants have been left homeless. One of them has been homeless for 18 months and living on a caravan site because she cannot get into her home as the roads have not been adopted.

Mr. Hollobone: I thank the hon. Lady. The point about social housing tenants is that if they find alternative permanent accommodation before they are allocated their social housing tenancy, it will not be allocated to them because they will be deemed not to be homeless.

Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate. I should declare that I was employed for many happy years by Genesis Homes housing association
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under its previous name. I understand that it is an extremely responsible housing association and registered social landlord.

In the urban context, we frequently face a similar problem whereby a developer will build on an unadopted road and provide the basic sewerage and power connections but not maintenance or street lighting. There appears at the present time to be no legal requirement for potential purchasers to be told that they are buying a house in a road that is not adopted by the local authority. Will he consider that in the course of his speech?

Mr. Hollobone: I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that extremely pertinent point. Under the legislation, the frontagers on these roads can be held liable for the costs of bringing the roads, pavements and street lighting up to an adoptable standard. They should be advised of those obligations by their solicitor when they undertake their house purchase, but I am not convinced that that always happens. I hope that the Minister will take that point away and discuss it with his relevant colleague in, I guess, the Department for Communities and Local Government, or perhaps the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, because it is important that potential homeowners are advised of their potential liability in this respect. Although the point that the hon. Gentleman makes is a matter of concern in Kettering, the vast majority of my constituents who are affected by this issue live on new estates where the developer is supposed to take responsibility for getting the roads, pavements and street lights up to an adoptable standard but is not doing so.

The hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) made an extremely good point about borough council refuse services. Borough and district councils will become involved in that issue through their responsibilities as planning authorities in granting planning permission-although I guess that in her case many of those responsibilities are now devolved to the West Northamptonshire Development Corporation-as well as in relation to the provision of waste collection services. If a road is not adopted to a suitable standard, there is an argument that the borough council may find it difficult to access properties and take away rubbish.

Ms Keeble: In the case of Bridleways, it is not just the roads that cause the complication. There are also problems to do with the gradient, the layout and planning permission. A major issue is the need for proper partnership working between the different local authorities to ensure that arrangements are in place for the roads to be adopted and that there are the right enforcement powers so that people can move into the homes that they have been waiting to move into for some 15 months.

Mr. Hollobone: It really does sound as though the situation is horrendous in the hon. Lady's constituency, and I can understand her anxiety. It has probably been complicated by the presence of the quango, the West Northamptonshire Development Corporation, which could have ironed out many of the problems at the start of the process. Nevertheless, the fundamental point, as I highlighted at the start of the debate, is that the section 38 process is not working properly despite the best endeavours of the local authorities involved.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I apologise for not being here at the beginning of the debate, but in the next two and a quarter hours of it, will my hon.
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Friend comment on the 52,000 new houses being developed in north Northamptonshire? The problem is that when councils reject plans because the roads will not be adopted and the infrastructure will not be in place, the decision is overturned by the Government inspector, as has happened with 3,000 homes in north Wellingborough.

Mr. Hollobone: I know that my hon. Friend has a huge problem with the Planning Inspectorate in Bristol with regard to the proposed development of 3,000 homes to the east of Wellingborough in his constituency. Clearly, local residents did not want that number of houses built in the proximity of their town, and despite his best endeavours and those of his colleagues on the local borough council, their views, although made very strongly, were effectively ignored and overruled by the Planning Inspectorate in Bristol.

One of the big problems with new housing developments is that roads are not being built to a suitable standard. If the Government's mechanism for that-section 38 of the Highways Act 1980-is already failing, my hon. Friend and I cannot expect it to work in the case of the large new estates that are being proposed in his constituency, in mine and across the country. That adds to local people's anxiety about the proper infrastructure not being in place when those new housing developments are constructed.

I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Northampton, North and my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) for highlighting specific examples of the problem. In my constituency, the main communities affected are Mawsley, a new, model village that has been under construction for some years now; the Grange estate, which is being built to the north of Desborough; and the Poppyfields development, which is still in the course of being constructed next to the railway line on Rothwell road in Kettering.

The problem is that Northamptonshire county council, despite its best endeavours, can effectively adopt land as highway land only if the developer wants it to do so. It has no power to require developers to hand over land for adoption, and it rightly takes the view that it will adopt land only if the developer has brought it up to the right standard. It surprises me that developers seem reluctant to bring their highways up to a sufficient standard, because one would have thought that one of the best ways to sell properties on new estates was to have the highways, pavements and lighting sorted out, which would attract new purchasers. It is a genuine problem, especially for Mawsley village.

Mr. Sanders from Mawsley has been a key figure in highlighting the problem. I wrote to the Minister for Housing at the Department for Communities and Local Government in August on behalf of Mr. Sanders. I had contacted the wrong Department, and I got a reply from the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Ipswich (Chris Mole). That was extremely helpful. He told me:

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as the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) highlighted-

I imagine that that is the point of law that is of particular interest to the hon. Member for Ealing, North.

The letter continues:

Stephen Pound: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The impact should be explained by the solicitor, but the majority of pre-purchase searches that a solicitor makes relate to, for example, major roadworks, whether planning permission has been granted for any extension, whether there are any major infrastructure schemes, basic land ownership and what we used to call a Swansea search. In many cases, there is no way that one would even know that a road was unadopted. If it is fairly recent and has a thin skin of tarmac, it looks reasonable. I have many constituents who have scrimped and saved to buy a house and now face either a massive bill to bring the road up to standard or spending the rest of their lives on a road that is falling to pieces before their eyes, will damage their vehicles, be a danger to their children and reduce the value of their property. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting such issues-I hope that he will give further impetus to those points.

Mr. Hollobone: I am happy to give those points further impetus, but the main message that the hon. Gentleman and I wish to convey is that the Government need to take the matter away, and the appropriate Ministers in the appropriate Departments need to consider amending, for example, the estate agents' code and the solicitors' code, and examine whether there needs to be a change in the law to protect the hon. Gentleman's constituents and mine from what can be very large charges.

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The Under-Secretary of State for Transport rounds off his helpful letter by saying:

That is a great shame. It might be a late bid, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman could persuade his colleagues to put something in the Queen's Speech next week. Whether by this Government or an alternative, these issues certainly need to be taken up and addressed in future.

An individual in my constituency who has been heavily involved in this matter is Councillor Jim Harker, who is the leader of Northamptonshire county council and, as it happens, councillor for the Kettering rural division that includes the village of Mawsley. He has been working extremely closely with councillors Jim Hakewill and Victoria Perry, who are the borough councillors representing the Slade ward, which includes the village.

In correspondence with constituents on this issue, Councillor Harker said:


He goes on to state that

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