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11 Nov 2009 : Column 333

These "adoption agreements", as they are known, offer such obvious advantages to both the developer and the authority that such an approach is often the preferred one. The developer has the certainty of knowing that, after a year, the authority will automatically adopt the street as a highway maintainable at public expense-subject, of course, to an inspection to confirm that it has been built to the standard agreed by the highway authority. I am not aware in respect of the streets referred to whether the highway authority, Northamptonshire county council, entered into such agreements.

Once adopted, the highway authority becomes liable for future maintenance and liabilities, should there be claims arising from the condition of the highway. Therefore most authorities will adopt a new street in a development only if it has been built to the agreed standard. Where an agreement exists between a highway authority and developer, it will be for the developer to inform the highway authority that the new street should be adopted. The use of agreements or the advance payment code is an important way of protecting the council tax payer.

The hon. Gentleman referred to four matters of concern to his constituents. On the first issue, which related to how the adoption of streets within new developments is carried out, it is clearly unfair to expect council tax payers to subsidise the building of new developments by expecting them to adopt streets that have not been built to the appropriate standards-hence the provision in legislation for agreements and the advance payment code. The hon. Gentleman referred to the 1972 figure of 40,000 unadopted roads and he referred to the Library paper that estimated about the same figure for the numbers today. At today's prices, it would cost an estimated £3 billion for these roads to be made up. It is worth bearing that in mind in our discussions on this issue.

That is why the bond is so important, because it is intended to indemnify the authority from potential liabilities. Once the highway authority is satisfied that the new street is suitable for adoption, the bond is released. For newly built properties-the hon. Member for Wellingborough and my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North, as well as the hon. Gentleman, touched on this-those acting for the purchaser should establish the status of the new street and whether there is an agreement to adopt the new highway or that a bond has been lodged with the authority under the advance payment code and advise their client on the implications and what action they could take to mitigate this. In developments such as Mawsley village, it is in the developer's interests to discuss at an early stage with the highway authority how the new streets and infrastructure should be built, rather than, as I understand is the case, to bring the streets up to standard after houses have been occupied.

Good local authorities-it is not for me to comment on whether the hon. Gentleman's authority is a good or bad one-working within the national planning policy framework set planning policies so that local development meet local needs. They may choose to set local planning policies that impose requirements for streets in new developments to be built to the appropriate standard for adoption-an easy thing, one could argue, for a good local authority to do, and many good local authorities around the country are doing just that.

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Mr. Hollobone: I am listening to what the Minister is saying, but I am unaware of the mechanism that a local authority can use to ensure that a developer does construct highways, pavements and street lighting to an adoptable standard.

Mr. Khan: The hon. Gentleman must have seen my speech, as I am just coming on to that very point. The requirement can be enforced either through planning conditions or through the use of planning obligations-an agreement between a developer and a local authority. Kettering borough council, as the planning authority for the hon. Gentleman's constituency, could have included that in its planning policies. In addition, if a developer intends a street to remain private with no public right of access, then some councils-the good ones-have entered into planning obligations under section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, which requires the developer to build the new streets to the authority's standards and to maintain them in a good condition.

Mr. Hollobone: The Minister is, of course, absolutely right, but the point about the section 106 agreements is that they can only be enforced on the completion of the development, and that may take five, 10 or 15 years.

Mr. Khan: That is why the good planning departments work closely with developers to ensure that buildings are finished on time. Timelines are established so that buildings can be completed quickly.

The hon. Gentleman is presumably alluding to the recession. We know that some developers have had problems and that, for very good reasons, the building of new estates may be delayed. In such circumstances, we would expect the developer and the council to work closely together to ensure that residents who have moved in are not disrupted, and that residents outside the development who use the roads are not inconvenienced by unadopted roads that are not up to scratch.

Authorities will usually only adopt a street if it has been brought up to standard at the expense of the frontagers. As a result, an existing street may only be adopted if a majority of owners in that street agree. For obvious reasons, many authorities prefer to have 100 per cent agreement. If the householders are unable to pay, the Highways Act 1980 provides for the authority to agree to payment with interest over a number of years, or to place a charge on the property. Either approach means that an authority incurs expenditure on behalf of others that may not be recovered for many years, perhaps up to 20 to 30. The highway authority could, subject to decisions by its elected officers, agree to share the cost of bringing the highway up to standard.

Decisions about whether to adopt streets and take on the cost of maintenance are local matters for local decisions, which will be based on the priorities within the authority's own programme of works. The hon. Gentleman, and my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North, may be interested to know that between 2008 and 2011 my Department is providing approximately £4 billion of capital funding to support local authority spending on small transport projects and highways maintenance, and around £2.3 billion on larger regional and local transport schemes. The local government settlement from the Department for Communities and Local Government distributes additional revenue funding to local authorities for transport purposes.

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Mr. Bone: The Minister is giving a very good response, but may I pick up his point about money being provided by the Department for Transport? In Wellingborough, the Department is suggesting putting in a bus lane for about 60 yards, which will speed up buses by three seconds at a cost of £2 million. Local people say that that is nonsense, but unless the infrastructure is put in, all the rest of the Government funding will fall. That does not seem a very good way in which to approach the provision of local infrastructure.

Mr. Khan: I am happy for the hon. Gentleman to write to me, and I am happy to discuss the matter with him, but I have not yet been briefed on it.

Mr. Hollobone: The Minister has come up with a figure for investment in local roads. Surely he will be as surprised as me that the Department does not appear to have made any assessment of the road mileage of unadopted roads that are likely to come into public ownership over the next five, 10 or 15 years. If he shares my surprise, will he speak to his officials and establish whether there might be legitimate scope for the information to be obtained? Would that not make it easier for the Government to calculate how much extra public expenditure will be required in future?

Mr. Khan: I thought Her Majesty's official Opposition were against databases. However, the hon. Gentleman will know that £3 billion is the cost of adopting the roads on the basis of the 40,000 figure I cited earlier. He will also know that those roads are local matters, and that for us to start compiling a database and obtaining the statistics from local authorities would take a huge amount of time. He, like me, is keen to ensure that every single penny of taxpayers' money is used for sensible purposes, rather than being spent on compiling databases when we already know the cost that will be involved in adopting all the roads.

Mr. Hollobone: Surely the Minister cannot feel comfortable about relying on data from 1972. However much he and I may dislike collecting unnecessary statistics, surely that is a little too out of date.

Mr. Khan: I refer the hon. Gentleman back to what he said in his speech, relying on the paper from the House of Commons Library. All the evidence suggests the number of unadopted roads is about the same now, 40,000, as it was then. I am not sure how having this scientifically tested would help because the point still remains that the cost of adopting those roads is approximately £3 billion. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that he can persuade his Front-Bench team to reach a consensus with us and agree that it is right to spend such a sum of money on that, or does he believe that we should have good planning authorities that work with developers to ensure that when roads are constructed, they are up to the necessary standard to be adopted, which I believe is the prudent course of action? I am unclear whether he is suggesting that his party should make a £3 billion spending commitment.

Mr. Hollobone: Neither the Minister nor I, nor any other Member, knows what that £3 billion figure is based on, because both the Minister and I are relying on a note from the House of Commons Library, and as esteemed as it is, the data are only based on original figures from 1972. Surely the Department for Transport can do better than that.

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Mr. Khan: I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman and I will agree on whether databases are a good thing and whether taxpayers' money or civil servants' time should be spent on compiling databases for this purpose. I do not think they should be, but he clearly disagrees.

There is no doubt that many people who live on private streets consider their liability to pay private street works charges as unfair, particularly people whose houses have long frontages, which make them liable to correspondingly high charges. However, while I obviously have sympathy for those to whom such charges represent a degree of hardship, we should remember that the liability for street works will appear in the local land charges register. The liability should therefore be taken into account in the purchase price of the house.

Many householders have paid to have their own streets made up, and might well feel aggrieved at a decision to make the service free to future users, especially in residential roads where the benefits will be enjoyed almost entirely by the householders and those visiting them, rather than by the public at large. When properties on unadopted streets are purchased, the searches should normally reveal that the street is unadopted, and the potential liabilities should be explained to those planning to purchase properties on an unadopted street by their conveyancer. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North made a very good point about buyers not always being informed of that by their solicitor or conveyancer. If he has examples of that, I will be happy to write to the Law Society to make sure they are looked into. Also, the hon. Member for Kettering might want to pass on to me examples in respect of additional guidance. I thought his party was against over-regulation and over-prescription, but if he is in favour of intervention and the hand of the state being placed on solicitors, I will be happy to listen to his representations and then write to the Law Society.

Some authorities have decided to tackle the issue of the number of unadopted streets in their area by funding some of the work to bring certain streets up to adoption standards. The focus is usually on streets that would benefit the local road network, for instance those that are a through route, or where the properties served are in a deprived neighbourhood. Authorities may use a number of sources of finance to support programmes to tackle long-standing unadopted streets in their area. Generally, these programmes are undertaken only where unadopted streets are in a bad condition and they provide the only access for a large number of properties. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Kettering has seen the unadopted roads information produced by the Department for Transport, but if he has not-or if his county council and borough council have not-I shall be happy to send him a copy. He simply need let me know after the debate has concluded.

The priority each local authority gives to spending resources on unadopted streets is for it to determine locally. The revenue support grant is allocated using a formula and, among other factors, it takes account of road maintenance, which is based on the length of road in respect of each of the different types of road for which the authority is responsible, along with the relative cost of maintaining the road, which takes account of traffic flow, population, and weather conditions.

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Local councils could decide on a programme of adoption and it could be funded through either prudential borrowing or capital receipts from the sale of assets, which may be used for capital purposes. Local authorities already have the flexibility to prioritise their transport expenditure in line with their own locally determined policies. Each authority's local transport plan is formed of a strategy and a shorter-term implementation plan, which is devised at local level in partnership with the community and recognises that local problems require local solutions. Funding for small-scale integrated transport improvement and maintenance schemes, such as making up unadopted roads, is provided as block capital allocations, allowing authorities to spend it as they wish according to local priorities. Such funding amounts to approximately £1.3 billion a year.

By working with highway authorities, developers can ensure that the streets in new estates can be adopted and the responsibility for future maintenance is transferred smoothly to the local authority. As long as streets are built in accordance with the local authority's requirements, there is no reason why newly built streets should not be adopted. I sympathise with those living on new developments who are frustrated by the time taken on this. I empathise with many of the comments made by
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the hon. Members for Kettering and for Wellingborough and by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North, but they will agree that a considerable amount has been done in this regard.

I am happy for the hon. Member for Kettering to meet my officials if he has specific examples of ways in which we can improve things, but I say that with a caveat: he will appreciate that we have various ambitious plans over the next period, which will be set out in the Queen's Speech next week. A number of his proposals will require primary legislation to ensure that the streets within new developments are built to appropriate standards. Bearing that in mind, my officials and I might not be receptive to some of his ideas if they require that sort of primary legislation or expenditure. If he has other ideas that are sensible, pragmatic, quick and cheap, we would listen with open ears to them.

Once again, may I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and thank him for the conscientious and assiduous way in which he has argued his points? I should also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North and the hon. Member for Wellingborough, who have stayed throughout this long debate.

Question put and agreed to.

9.1 pm

House adjourned.

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