Out of the jam: reducing congestion on our roads - Transport Committee Contents


Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 317-370)

Mike Penning MP and Norman Baker MP

14 June 2011

Q317 Chair: Good morning, Ministers, and welcome to both of you here at the Transport Select Committee. I see we have the coalition united here today. I am pleased to see both of you.

Norman Baker: We do. I have even got the coalition shirt and tie on.

Q318 Chair: Do either of you want to make any initial comments before we go to questions?

Mike Penning: I do not. I do not know if you do.

Norman Baker: Not really.

Q319 Chair: How efficient do you consider the road network to be?

Mike Penning: The national road network is enormously efficient considering the restraints and the pressures it is under. We are a nation that loves its car. We are very reliant on road haulage and the network itself does remarkably well. However, Madam Chair, we are very aware of certain things which cause us real problems. That is why we have the programme going on now with the other agencies as to how we handle major incidents better, for instance. We passionately believe that while we have to be compassionate and the police have to do their job when there is a fatality or a serious injury, the amount of time that a road is closed, particularly a motorway, after an incident is unacceptable to the infrastructure and the economy of the country. That is one of the areas where we think efficiencies need to be addressed.

Of course, events take us over. The main reasons why we have problems with the infrastructure are when we are fixing it and expanding it. At the same time other incidents are out of our hands, which certainly means accidents, and how we handle those accidents is crucial.

Norman Baker: In terms of the local network, obviously we are very keen to tackle congestion where we can because congestion brings unpredictability of journey time, which is probably more serious than the actual journey time itself. There is the uncertainty of when you will arrive. Also, there are the problems that arise with street works, which you may want to come on to at some point, which we are keen to minimise as far as we possibly can. Obviously these are matters ultimately for local authorities and their own local roads rather than for the Government to direct, but you will be aware of the Local Sustainable Transport Fund, one of the objectives of which is to help create growth and the other is to cut carbon. Part of that is modal shift. Bearing in mind that half the car journeys are five miles or less and two thirds of all trips are five miles or less, it seems to me we can tackle those in a sustainable way. We can both help to free up the roads for those who need to use them and at the same time help to reduce carbon by encouraging modal shift to cycling, walking or public transport.

Q320 Chair: Mr Penning, there has been a review of the Highways Agency. Can you tell us anything about that?

Mike Penning: Yes. The review continues and we will have a report fairly shortly. The Highways Agency is a relatively new agency and was created to be an asset to the nation and to our road networks. We have to make sure that, in the 21st century, it is doing what it was designed to do or whether it can be enhanced, whether it can be better managed and whether or not we are getting a bang for our buck from the Highways Agency in the way that we expected to do when it was set up.

Q321 Chair: Is there any scope for the Highways Agency to manage any other roads—non-Highways Agency roads?

Mike Penning: They do, interestingly enough. On the edge of my own constituency where the M10 was demotorised and is now the A414, which links into the existing A414, the contract for maintaining and cleaning that is a Highways Agency measure. There are examples around the country where we do, but we do not see there is a role to increase the empire, if you wish, going forward. That was an anomaly because of a particular existing contract with ConnectPlus, I believe. It was a shock to the Highways Agency when they found out, when I told them it was their responsibility when I noticed the litter was not being cleaned off the side of the highway.

Q322 Chair: Mr Baker, do you agree with removing the M4 bus lane?

Norman Baker: Do I agree with it? It is not something I give a great deal of consideration to because it comes under Mike's portfolio. Bus lanes can be very useful but they can also be unnecessary. It is a matter for judgment in each case as to whether a particular bus lane performs a useful function or not. A bus lane is particularly useful if it is in a concentrated urban area and where there are severe delays to frequent buses. Providing a bus lane that enables a frequent bus service to get from A to B more quickly with more predictability—coming back to that point—is a very useful function. Certainly, I am very keen to encourage bus lanes, where they are appropriate, up and down the country. Mike knows more about the M4 bus lane than I do, but that was a situation where the bus lane was not largely used and was used particularly for coaches, I think. Is that right?

Mike Penning: Yes. The M4 bus lane, which is suspended at the moment but due to our legal commitments with the Olympic bid will be reinstated purely for the Olympic and Paralympics and then removed, just was not fit for purpose. It was not doing the job it was designed to do and was creating a more congested area before the elevated section of the M4, which is why we made the decision, after consultation, to remove it. That has been very successful and there will be a lot of concern when we put it back for that short period of time before we permanently remove it.

Q323 Mr Leech: Mr Penning, what assessment has been done? How is the success or otherwise of removing the bus lane being judged? Will there be a full assessment of the number of extra cars on the road or the journey times or a mixture of the two? Will any assessment be made of the impact on the coach and bus journeys that are now made into the centre of London?

Mike Penning: Yes, there is a continuing assessment made. One of the biggest problems on that part of the M4 network is congestion, which is causing some major pollution and environmental issues along there. Before we took it out, the interesting thing is that even though it was called a bus lane, there were very few buses using it. It was predominantly coaches, and even more taxis than there were buses. The initial finding is that the journey time, thus congestion on that piece of motorway, has been reduced, but we will continue to assess that as we go forward.

It is going to be very interesting of course, as we reinstate it, to see what effect it has, because it is very much a commuter part of the country coming into London. It will be very interesting to see how long it takes people to get used to it. It was open to all traffic for some time but because we have not actually ripped up the coloured markings on it and it still looks like a bus lane people were loth to go into it. They have got used to that now. There has been enough publicity to say that you can use it perfectly legally, but we will have to be very careful after we reinstate it for the Olympics and the Paralympics.

Q324 Mr Leech: What has the reaction of bus and coach operators been?

Mike Penning: I will write to the Committee on the exact figures. I did get inundated with colleagues writing to me about taxi drivers who work in their constituency who said that this was an absolute disgrace. I must indicate that taxis pay the same road tax as a personal ordinary car. It was not designed as a bus lane. I understand the courts over the years have moved to allow taxis into bus lanes, but at the end of the day I have to look at congestion, which is the biggest problem, and the problems with time, as Norman has said. This is not just journey times but how you plan a journey and the environmental aspects as well, because the emissions in the atmosphere when traffic is bad are very bad.

Q325 Mr Leech: It is accepted that when you increase the amount of road space available, for a certain amount of time it will clearly improve journey times. But there is also some evidence that when road space has been expanded, such as extra lanes on motorways, after a period of time it just creates more traffic. If, as the change moves on in time, it proves that there are just more cars going on to the M4 rather than improving journey times, is the Government open to looking again at whether or not it would scrap the lane permanently following the Olympics?

Mike Penning: The Government and I as a Minister, and I am sure my colleague will also say this, are always open­minded. If you do something, you must keep an open mind as to how you do it. Managing the assets that we have, sweating those assets in this difficult financial time, is probably the most important thing. I know we are going to come on to managed motorways. It will not be a managed motorway but it will be formed in that sort of way. The interesting thing is that if we can get the flow of traffic coming through there at a speed that is managed as we go on to the elevated sections, as three lanes go to two, that will improve it for everybody, including the people living in that part of the world, who are suffering environmentally at the moment.

Q326 Iain Stewart: One of the areas I am particularly interested in is intelligent traffic management and how we can harness new technology to move vehicles efficiently around both the strategic road network and in a very local context. We have heard from several witnesses that there are schemes being developed with sat­nav companies to provide real­time information about what the best advice is, i.e. not travel, take an alternative route or stay still, depending on the situation. Who is best to drive forward that programme, that research? Is it the DfT, at local authority level or the Highways Agency? Who is better placed?

Mike Penning: I will let Norman speak on the local authority side, but certainly on the national road network, working with partners in the industry, it is obviously us at the Department for Transport. I have some concerns about individual personalised data information and I am not talking in this particular case just about sat­navs. The interesting thing about the sat­nav is that it is designed to help and aid the driver. Some are fixed installations and some are not. For instance, I saw a proposal the other day as to whether or not we would start to feed information from the Highways Agency into PDAs or BlackBerrys and things like that. That is fine as long as there is more than one person in the car, but I do not want distraction brought in with technology. Predominantly, for our drivers, the real issue to do with accidents is speed and distraction, so the last thing in the world I want to do is to bring more information inside the car that is likely in any way to distract the driver. That is something we have to be very careful about.

In relation to technology on the motorway network, the managed motorway system is where we are. I was very sceptical in opposition, as an ex-fireman, about using hard shoulders and things like that. The evidence is there, and the trials that were done on the M42, with the help of the Transport Research Laboratories, have proven the case and now we are rolling it out around the country. I was very proud to be on the M6 when we did another version the other day. It is a shame, to be slightly controversial about my predecessors, that they did not look at that more carefully before they started issuing contracts—for instance, with the M25 widening—because we have not really sweated the assets there that we could have done. The National Audit Office report into how much extra that has cost because we did not do that properly is there for everybody to see.

Norman Baker: On the local side, it is worth pointing out that the Department for Transport has, for 14 years, been pursuing the urban traffic management control mechanism to encourage the use of intelligent traffic control. That has been quite useful and has been rolled out in over 100 cities in the UK, to varying degrees—at the simplest level to join up traffic lights to make sure that you get green waves and the traffic is kept flowing. What I have learned from TfL in London is that if you fiddle around with the traffic lights by even five seconds, you can cause major problems. This is quite sophisticated in terms of its application. But it is also real­time information at bus stops and about whether car parks are full. Air pollution monitoring and so on can be plugged into that. The ability of technology to change dramatically how we approach road transport generally, but also public transport, is a very exciting topic. It has the potential to make better use of the network by getting cars and vehicles flowing more freely. It has the potential to give people confidence in public transport systems in terms of when something will turn up. It opens up the opportunity to have diversionary routes and to indicate to people where they might be best placed to get from A to B and which road to take. These are very exciting developments and I am very keen that we harness that technology to make sure we get the best deal for the transport user in this country.

Q327 Iain Stewart: If I can pick up on the local aspect, in a previous evidence session Surrey was the case before us. Are you satisfied that neighbouring authorities will properly co­operate with each other so that we do not have a situation where you just move a traffic problem into an adjacent authority? If one gets it right and is very efficient, the traffic jam is just rolled on to the next place.

Norman Baker: They have an interest in getting it right, do they not, because if you have free flowing traffic to the edge of your border and then everybody stops and comes to a grinding halt, you have not helped the people that have got to the border quickly. Of course it makes sense for local authorities to work together, as indeed it makes sense for the Highways Agency to work with local authorities and highway authorities to make sure that the interaction between the Highways Agency network and the local network works well, and that does happen.

Q328 Iain Stewart: You are satisfied that the current balance of responsibilities is correct.

Norman Baker: In what sense—the balance of responsibilities?

Q329 Iain Stewart: The aspects of road management that are controlled by local authorities and those that are done strategically through the Highways Agency.

Norman Baker: I personally do not have a concern from the local angle.

Mike Penning: That is an area where we can work more closely with the local authorities, particularly when we have closures of major networks, in other words motorways. At the moment, one of the things I am looking at is that if a section, just one junction on a motorway, is closed, sometimes we have excessive diversions, which have a really adverse effect on local communities. We need to look very carefully as to how we do that. Working with local authorities is the key and that works reasonably well. It could be better and that is something we are looking at now.

Q330 Chair: We were told in a previous session about a project called ITS Toolkit, which enabled an exchange of information on technology for those purposes. We were told that it is no longer being funded. Are you aware of that and could you tell us what is happening? I do not know which of you would like to answer.

Mike Penning: It is more your area, Norman, than mine. It is not being funded at the present time and we have to be realistic about what funding is around and what is not around. There has been some degree of success on some of it and it needs to be reassessed as to where that funding should come from as we go forward, but at the moment there isn't funding for it.

Q331 Chair: At the moment has that stopped or has it just been put on hold?

Mike Penning: I would have to write to the Committee. Some of it has carried on without the funding, interestingly enough, which is always an exciting thing if it happens. I am looking for the evidence base and if we can see the evidence base, we can look forward. At the moment we do not have the funding for it.

Q332 Steve Baker: Could I just return to the M4 bus lane, to touch on motorcycle safety? As an occasional commuter on the M4 I was always relieved to get on to the bus lane because it ended the stress and the risk of filtering. Has an opportunity been taken to look at the contribution of that bus lane to motorcycle safety?

Mike Penning: As a biker myself, I have taken a personal interest in this as the years have gone on because motorcycles were excluded from bus lanes in many of our cities as well. I know that has been looked at, not particularly in Norman's portfolio but the Mayor has looked at that. The key is that it must have been wonderful for motorcyclists to get in the M4 bus lane and cruise unhindered just on the speed limit, but was the best use of that piece of tarmac just being used for that? We decided that it was not. But it is something we will look at. Interestingly enough, that motorway, as the Committee I am sure is aware, is the safest road in our country, for motorcyclists in particular. Sadly, at the moment, and it has been going for many years, deaths and serious injuries on roads have been going down in all areas except in motorcycling, which is why we are looking at the test very carefully at the moment.

Q333 Steve Baker: I am sorry to press you on this. Any reasonable motorcyclist would appreciate that having an entire lane available to them was an unreasonable request. But it just struck me that this was almost a controlled situation where losing the bus lane has taken a stretch from giving a motorcyclist that period of space to be safe and it inevitably will have pushed motorcyclists back to filtering on the motorway, which is often done horribly irresponsibly. I certainly saw some accidents on that stretch. I wanted to press you on whether you would consider studying the change in the accident rate on that stretch just to see what the effect of using bus lanes is on motorcyclists.

Mike Penning: Absolutely. We will do that, but we have to stress that motorcyclists have to be as responsible as other road users. Was the way the lane was used the best use of that piece of national asset? I had to make that decision. But we will keep it monitored.

Q334 Julian Sturdy: I want to follow on from Mr Stewart's earlier questions. Do you think the DfT should help local authorities more in developing standards to tackle congestion or is it a case that local knowledge is best?

Norman Baker: Local knowledge certainly is best in terms of the specific solution for each individual congestion point or each individual high street. Obviously a local council knows its high street better than the Department for Transport, which has probably never even seen the high street. We can make councils aware of best practice. Some of that was encompassed in the White Paper "Creating Growth, Cutting Carbon", published earlier this year. We liaise with local authorities, but, increasingly, the Local Government Association has a role to play in this sort of area, which it has not really done so far. The LGA has tended to see itself as an organisation that lobbies central Government. Local councils have been asking for decades for Government to get off their back and let them get on with it, and in this new era of localism, it is finally happening now. We are letting local councils get on with it in their area and it is absolutely right to do that. But the LGA has a function, which it has not discharged terribly well so far, in co­ordinating best practice and rolling it out.

We are doing some of that of course with local authorities. For example, I have signed off a £6 million project to identify best practice in local authorities in dealing with roadworks. That will help, I think, and we will make councils aware of the outcome of that to make sure they get best value for the work they do in terms of dealing with those sorts of conditions. But, increasingly, it is the councils themselves and the LGA and the local government family that should own this, rather than central Government instructing them about what they should be doing.

Q335 Julie Hilling: I want to carry on talking about real­time information and that area. Is there more that could be done to make sure that information is up to date and real? I went on a visit to a taxi firm yesterday and got this absolutely amazing traffic information that they are using for their fleet. Could we have more interaction between freight, taxis and other information that local authorities may have?

Mike Penning: There are now myriad services out there that the market has driven forward as to what information can be given to the industry. If you look at freight, because that is my responsibility as well, not only do they know exactly where their lorries are, but their delivery times are timed within literally a five-minute slot—sometimes even less than that. So they have to know and they have that technology. That is very difficult to put directly into a car, for instance, especially when you only have a single driver within a car.

One point at which everybody gets very frustrated, and I do, is when we are giving information out on matrix signs. Are we really giving up to date and user-friendly information there and then? I went on to the M1 the other night at junction 1 and came off at junction 8, and they were telling me at junction 2 about something that was happening at junction 29. That may well be of use to some people, but they are interested in what is happening where they are. I cannot believe there was nothing at all between junctions 1 and 29 which was of interest to the motorist going up the motorway.

The other thing the Minister and I have spoken about is whether or not we can encourage people off the motorways and on to other modes of transport with some of those matrix signs. For instance, using the M1 again, if you are coming down the M1 and you are anywhere near Luton Airport Parkway station, literally within two or three minutes of coming off the M1 you could have parked and got a train and you could be in London. That is the sort of thing we are looking at to see if we can give better information. It is a complete break with the traditional information we have been giving out through matrix signs and things like that, and there will be some opposition to it, but we need to just look at whether we can get better information on lots of different things for motorists as they drive.

Norman Baker: It is not just the technology; it is also the intelligent use of technology, because it can be just blanket technology and badly used. Mike has given the example of the signing on the M1. The information you want is at that particular point for the journey you are making, and that is the same whether it is on the road or on the railways. On the railways, for example, people want information as to why the train has stopped and when it will start again. They want information about how soon they will reach their destination. They do not want to be told a lot of verbiage that is irrelevant to the situation they are in. It is important that the human aspect of the use of technology is also plugged in properly to ensure we do not simply let this run riot without control or on autopilot.

Coming back to your point about joined-up information, I do not know if the Committee has seen it, but the Directory of Urban Traffic Management and Control booklet of case studies is quite interesting, and you might want to have a look at it. It demonstrates what has happened across the country and how different towns and cities have approached the co­ordination of information in a different way. There is a little chart that shows which towns and cities have used which particular techniques. It is quite interesting to see how some have combined variable messaging and traffic control, some have real­time information at bus stops and so on, and how it is all plugged in. It is quite useful to see how people use that information in a productive way.

Mike Penning: Some of the simplest forms of technology have given the most tangible benefits. For instance, the matrix sign saying "9 miles to X, 11 minutes" is such a simple piece of information but it is the most useful piece of information, especially on the motorways. That has been available for years and years and years, and it is there. It can be frustrating when you look up and you think nine miles is half an hour and then it will say "Congestion". But knowing it is clear and that is how long it should take you helps you plan your personal routes much better.

Norman Baker: I am very keen, as Mike is, to try and think cross-modal because people are not just car drivers or just train passengers. They will make their choice according to what journey they want to make. Sometimes they will want to switch. Let us say you are on a busy, single carriageway trunk road that is normally congested, like the A27 in my constituency, for example. If you have a sign there saying the railway journey along this parallel corridor is half the journey time of the road journey, people might think about changing to the train. If you do that, it may obviate the need for expensive and perhaps environmentally damaging roadworks. These cross-modal initiatives are quite important.

Q336 Chair: But what are the Government doing to enable that information to be used more effectively? Mr Baker, you said before it was not just having the technology. It was using it in a way that was public-friendly. Are the Government doing enough to make that happen?

Norman Baker: That is down to human nature, to be honest, and common sense in many cases, whether it is the Highways Agency that Mike looks after or whether it is local authorities. It is a question of common sense and saying, "What does a traveller actually need to know?", and then making sure it is put out there. You cannot legislate for that. It is about people thinking ahead and applying their logic to the situation in which they find themselves.

Q337 Chair: But what about examples of best practice? Are the Government doing anything to publicise those?

Norman Baker: I have just referred to the case studies booklet, for example, which does in fact put together best practice. We are always keen to use best practice, but I come back to the point I made to Mr Sturdy a moment ago, that as far as local roads are concerned the LGA has a bigger role to play than it has played so far.

Q338 Mr Leech: Mr Baker, on a couple of occasions you have touched on the issue of roadworks, which is obviously something that exercises drivers, pedestrians and other road users all the time. Last week we visited TfL and there was an acceptance that more could be done to better co­ordinate roadworks between the different utilities, but no one is able to come up with the organisation that should be responsible for that co­ordination of roadworks. Does the Department have a view on how we could better co­ordinate roadworks so that different utility companies are digging up the same road at the same time?

Norman Baker: The situation in London is slightly different from the rest of the country of course in this respect, as it is in all other respects. But I think we have made progress over the years. Successive companies have made progress. The 1991 New Roads and Street Works Act was the initial step to try to make sure that local authorities are notified as to what was happening. That was useful in improving behaviour. We want to go further than that and ensure that we minimise the amount of disruption on our roads because it is just inconvenient for everybody and it can be costly for the wider business community and, indeed, for local authorities who are carrying out their own works on the roads.

I am very keen to push the permit scheme arrangement, which has been successful. The initial findings from Kent, which has adopted it, are that complaints and inquiries about roadworks have decreased 26%. That was the initial finding; 1,389 days in the last year have been saved on roadworks. The London figure is a 32% reduction in the number of hours of roadworks London-wide since the introduction of the permit schemes in about half of London. You may know that, recently, seven further London boroughs have signed up to permit schemes in the last few weeks. That is a way of driving performance, co­ordinating roadworks better and making sure that there is ownership at local authority level for those particular works. There are other steps we want to take as well.

Q339 Mr Leech: There is little doubt that the permit scheme has made a big impact in terms of the time roadworks take and co­ordination in doing roadworks at the most appropriate period of time. But National Grid, whom we visited, and TfL both accepted that if National Grid are doing some roadworks on a particular road at a particular time and have a particular permit, there is no co­ordination between National Grid and other utilities perhaps to do other utilities' work on that same road at the same time. It came across as though there was no one to do that co­ordination between the different utilities. Is that something that local authorities should take on or NJUG should take on, or the individual utilities themselves?

Norman Baker: I do not think it is true to say that works are not co­ordinated. I can think of some works in London that have been co­ordinated, and co­ordinated quite well.

Q340 Mr Leech: It is still very rare, though, isn't it?

Norman Baker: It is not as common as it should be, but the point is that the system is there to enable local authorities to co­ordinate if they choose to do so. Some have done so better than others. The industry itself has produced a best practice guide which helps to identify how those sorts of aspects can be handled. There is a score card arrangement now that can be rolled out to measure how successfully roadworks have been undertaken, which encompasses also the co­ordination of roadworks. I think we are getting there slowly in terms of making sure we make progress on this, but you are quite right to say that co­ordination is a key point and you are quite right to say there is nothing more infuriating for road users than having the road dug up, reinstated, inspected, repaired to a satisfactory level, only to be dug up again shortly afterwards. But the number of cases where that happens now is diminishing as a consequence of the steps taken. The permit scheme, in particular, gives local authorities a handle to try to co­ordinate this by determining the timing themselves in a way that was not as easy before under the 1991 Act.

Q341 Mr Leech: One of the problems appears to be that if a utility might have to do some work in a particular area that another utility is working on, it might not be on their priority list of work so they do not get involved, even though they might know about a particular work happening. Is there any scope for trying to pass on some additional cost to utilities to encourage them to do the work at that time? It does not appear, from what we have been told, that utilities are really getting on board and doing the work at the time when another utility is prepared to do it.

Norman Baker: It is open to a highway authority, when it is notified that a particular utility wants to do some work, to contact other utilities who have infrastructure in that particular piece of road, to notify them and to try to co­ordinate the timing of that work. That has happened on occasion and it needs to happen more than it has happened. As part of the DfT business plan, we are, as you know, committed to a lane rental pilot scheme. That, of course, would give an incentive directly for utilities to co­ordinate their works because they would have to share the cost of the lane rental rather than having to have the scarce bit of road dug up again and then bearing the whole cost of that particular operation. So there is a financial incentive. We will be bringing forward plans for a pilot in due course for lane rental to try to deal with that.

Q342 Chair: We were told by London Councils that regulations have not yet been put into force for the 1991 Act which would give highways authorities the power to charge the utilities for repeated digging up of the roads. Is that correct?

Norman Baker: I am not quite sure which particular regulations or powers under the 1991 Act you are referring to. I will check that point and drop the Committee a line. Clearly, you will be aware that with any piece of legislation Governments pass, a huge number of powers are often made available that are then subsequently not enacted. We would be keen to try to make sure that the powers we do enact do not have a disproportionate impact on business, and sometimes a contradictory effect in terms of what they are trying to achieve. The fact that a power may exist and has not been enacted does not necessarily mean a failure of this Government, the previous Government or any Government. It may simply be that in the light of changing circumstances, is it appropriate to take that forward? But I will ask officials to come back to me on that specific point and I will write to the Committee.

Q343 Chair: It would be helpful if you could because we were told that. Have you given any thought to having an Independent Roadworks Commissioner, as they have in Scotland, to look at the way roadworks are done?

Norman Baker: I have not seen any evidence that that is necessary at this particular point. What I have seen is increasing co­ordination and willingness to work together between local authorities, utilities and others to try to minimise roadworks. There is a shared common agenda. I am encouraged by the greater common working that is now taking place. Certainly, as far as both the local authorities and the utilities are concerned, it is not something they are pushing me to take forward. There are other issues of concern, for example, the safety of people working on the highway, which appear to be more important to them at this particular point.

Q344 Chair: The Transport Secretary and the Mayor of London have announced a £1 million fund for a project to research and develop new technology to cut down time on roadworks. Can you tell us anything about how that is developing?

Norman Baker: I know that the Secretary of State and the Mayor have been working together to try to see what can be done, and, of course, the Mayor of London has a particular interest in these matters. Clearly, we want to make sure we get best value for public money, and if the Mayor wants to come forward with a scheme that then enables us to get a wider benefit that is something of course in which the Department for Transport are interested.

Q345 Julie Hilling: Following on from that, I have been made aware of a means of plating roads while roadworks are taking place further up but the trench still cannot be refilled, or so that trenches can be covered over weekend periods or at different periods. The National Grid are actually doing some work on this. Are you aware of those trials taking place and what are you prepared to do to promote them?

Norman Baker: Department officials have had discussions with utilities and others about how they undertake roadworks, not simply about when and how long they last. One of the ways we can minimise disruption for the motorist is sometimes by using techniques that do not require trenches to be dug up and left for long periods of time. That can be filling in, or using tunnels to access a particular stretch of road which may have to be repaired. It may be the kind of material you use for the pipes to ensure that we do not have to dig up the road again for a very long time. There are certainly techniques you can use which minimise the amount of road dug up at any particular point and we are keen to take that forward as far as we can.

Q346 Julie Hilling: This is specifically about coverings that are safe and could cover the trench until you have to dig.

Norman Baker: Obviously, the first priority in any roadworks is to make sure that the place is safe. It has to be safe for road users who might want to use it, safe for pedestrians, and safe for those working on the road. That has to be the first priority. But, in so far as we have achieved that priority, clearly if you can at the same time minimise the amount of time the road is taken out of use for road users, it is clearly beneficial. We are certainly interested in anything we can do to use innovative techniques to achieve that.

Q347 Julie Hilling: The other question following from that is around new development and where utility services are put in. We have been told that in Milton Keynes, for instance, all the utilities are in the verges rather than in the carriageway. Are new developments told that they should not be putting the utilities in the carriageway?

Mike Penning: I come from a family of builders so that does help. We are where we are with the country's infrastructure, but new infrastructure is designed completely differently. If you get a burst water main you may need to dig up, but technology is moving even on that—they can put sleeves around and they can go through. Very often, you will see new gas mains going in now where they are sleeving up the inside of the existing main so it has not been dug up at all. But with new builds, you have only got to look at a new house—the way it is designed and the way the ducting works and everything—to see a completely different way of doing things now from how we did them in the past. The problem with roadworks is that they tend to be with infrastructure that is just wearing out.

Q348 Julie Hilling: Indeed, but that infrastructure is going to wear out in the future. Is it still being put in in the middle of carriageways or is it being put in verges, in pathways and other places?

Mike Penning: If you look at most new towns—I used to be a fireman in Basildon—most new towns have it in the pavements rather than in the road, where they can. There are always going to be issues, to do with sewers, for instance, where you just cannot do that.

Q349 Julie Hilling: Are there regulations in place that are saying that they should be—

Mike Penning: We would have to write to building regs. That is not our Department, but we can write to the Committee about that. That is building regs and comes from a different Department.

Q350 Iain Stewart: Turning to road user behaviour, to what extent do you believe that poor road user behaviour contributes to congestion, particularly in the motorway network?

(Horn was sounded loudly outside)

Mike Penning: I am also the Shipping Minister. Perhaps they are trying to tell me something.

Poor road user behaviour and inappropriate behaviour creates accidents, and accidents massively affect the road infrastructure. We have already said earlier on in the evidence today how we are trying to deal with it once we have accidents, and of course we have the safest roads in the world, of which we are very proud, but we still have too many people killed and seriously injured on our roads. How we teach people to drive better rather than teaching them to pass a test is something that you will hear me go on and on about all the time because that is one of the biggest challenges we have. Whether it is with young people or older people, they should drive appropriately. Have they been educated? Do they have the skills to do that and does the test produce that for them? My personal view is that at the moment the test is better than it was, but we are still teaching people to pass a test, not giving them skills so that they do not drive inappropriately on our roads.

Q351 Iain Stewart: Accidents are obviously a huge factor but I am also thinking in terms of poor lane discipline on motorways creating bottlenecks. I am aware there are certain schemes—Pass Plus is one and the Institute of Advanced Motorists has various schemes—to educate drivers on road safety, to avoid congestion, to save them money by driving efficiently. How do you see the Department taking forward some of those schemes?

Mike Penning: There are two ways forward. Certainly, post-test training is something that we are very keen on. I do not think Pass Plus has been hugely successful. It was brought in for all the right reasons, mostly to train people better so that, in theory, they have a lower premium on their insurance. The work that the Institute of Advanced Motorists does is exemplary. There are other schemes starting to be rolled out; the AA are looking at schemes. The market will start to drive schemes forward, not least because of the cost of insurance.

Enforcement is crucial. The Road Traffic Act is there for a reason. It is not just to be a pain on people's pockets and points on their licences. It is there for a reason. Technology is helping us as we go forward, particularly on the managed motorways. Before, people would slow down for a speed camera and then disappear off at a rate of knots down the road, but an average speed camera will pick you up if you do that. That is dramatically changing as we roll out the managed motorways and these sorts of technologies. Once we have caught you, it is not just a case of throwing points at you and a penalty. It is educating you with speed awareness courses and other courses that we are now going to roll out, because all the evidence shows that they actually work.

Norman Baker: I would also give a plug to the Energy Saving Trust, who do very good work on eco-driving, which not only reduces carbon emissions and business costs because the savings for people who drive can be 10% or 15%, but also encourages better driving in terms of the issues you referred to like lane discipline and so on. Certainly, I find it infuriating to be on a motorway and find everybody in the outside lane and nobody in the inside lane. I also find it infuriating when you go to a junction and someone keeps it a secret until the traffic lights change that they want to turn right and they cause chaos at that particular junction. Better driving all round can help congestion as well as help the environment.

Mike Penning: I touched on driving technique a moment ago but it is really very important. We were talking earlier on about how we need to sweat the assets, particularly on our motorways. The interesting thing is almost a side-effect. I am sure this was not intended; we did not have the evidence. As managed motorways have come in, we have managed you down to 50 mph and we use the hard shoulder, where have the accident rates gone? They have gone down. All motorways are still the safest roads to drive on, interestingly enough. We need to train young drivers to drive on motorways, perhaps before they pass their test, so that they can use those skills once they have passed their test, but the accident rates on managed motorways have dramatically dropped. Because they are on a managed motorway, it instils the sort of skills that they have to have. You can almost see the difference in the driver the minute they come off the managed motorway section or as they enter the managed motorway section, compared to how they drive past my constituency on the M1 at the moment because the cameras are not yet switched on.

Q352 Steve Baker: Mr Penning, I am reassured to hear your approach to skills, but would you agree with me that people tend to do well the things that they enjoy?

Mike Penning: Yes. One of the reasons that people take driving lessons so seriously is because they want to enjoy the roads and highways of this country for myriad different reasons, either for pleasure or for work or other things. It is a balance between being over-intrusive on people as to how they are trained to drive and how to do it. But you are absolutely right. The reason people are so keen to pay quite a lot of money to have lessons and pass their test is because they are going to enjoy the facilities that the licence gives them.

Q353 Steve Baker: Would you say that this sense of taking pleasure in driving has an impact on compliance with the law and, in particular, on voluntary compliance with the law?

Mike Penning: I am not seeing any evidence for that, whether as the Minister or going to RTCs, or RTAs, as they were in my time. Enjoyment in driving means a lot of different things to different people, but invariably getting from A to B quite fast or as fast as they can tends to be part of their enjoyment, and that tends to put other road users at risk. It is difficult. I cannot say that I would like everybody to enjoy every journey because they may be exceeding the speed limit every single time, and, vice versa, because there are people who drive inappropriately slowly, particularly on our motorways, or drive inappropriately slowly in certain lanes; it is usually the middle lane if you have a three-lane motorway. That is just as much of a danger at times than other inappropriate behaviour. It is not just speed; it is how we drive.

Q354 Steve Baker: I have a final point on this. We have seen in the press variously a sense that there has been a war on the motorist. Do you feel that these issues could be brought together not only to end the war on the motorist but also to improve effective traffic management and driver safety?

Mike Penning: The Secretary of State quite rightly said right at the outset that the war on the motorist was over. Right at the start of the coalition he said that. He said it because it was true and he felt that we needed to have a different rapport with the motorist. We take a great deal of money from them and give them a very hard time to allow them to use the roads in this country, no matter what they are driving. There had been a feeling, which I think was understandable, that we have beaten up the motorist time after time after time. The police will say this to everybody. If you want to have compliance, you have to work with the person from whom you are trying to get the compliance. It is not just a big stick all the time, because it just does not work eventually. We have seen that in areas, for instance, to do with our proposals on drink driving—I know the Committee looked at this carefully. We looked at whether or not we would drop the limit on drink driving. That would not have affected the others who drink inappropriately all the time to excess; they are obviously the ones we are going to be going for rather than everybody.

Q355 Chair: We have received many representations about dealing with the aftermath of incidents on roads and on motorways. In the review of how that is dealt with, we are told that improvements identified will not be put into practice until December 2012. Why is there such a lead time?

Mike Penning: This is a multi-agency review. You can't just wake up one morning and say, "We've changed the whole way that we deal with major incidents." I know the public would very much like us to do that, but it has to be rolled out and it has to be particularly rolled out through the police. For this to work, the police have to be comfortable that at the scene of a crime, which in many cases it is, they have the correct evidence that they need. For instance, I have just invested £3 million of DfT money on equipment that the police are going to use to help speed up dealing with incidents. This is nothing to do with the review. This is something we wanted to do straight away.

Of course, there are more agencies being involved with RTCs than ever before. For instance, on the M25 very recently there was a gentleman who committed suicide by jumping from a gantry. The road was closed for some considerable time. The police would have liked to have that open and handed it back to the Highways Agency. However, understandably, the local coroner intervened and asked for more evidence from the scene. As we roll this out, and we will roll it out, it will have to be rolled out with everybody understanding what the new guidelines and policies are. It will have to be flexible because every incident is different for those involved. They are different for the police and sometimes, as I say, other agencies are involved, particularly the coroner, and agencies like the Ambulance Service and the Air Ambulance—we tend to have to shut the other lane while the Air Ambulance lands. One of the things we are looking at is whether we have to do that, or whether we could keep the other side of the motorway open while we land a helicopter in front of the incident, and whether or not that would be too much of a distraction for drivers going the other way as the helicopter lands. There is more than enough room. It is all to do with distraction, as I understand it.

Q356 Chair: What are you doing as a Minister to try to expedite this? I accept the point that there are a lot of different authorities involved and the police are key to it, but what are you doing to make sure that something is done sooner rather than later?

Mike Penning: This is the first time this has happened. This is the first time, as a Department, we have said to the other agencies that the amount of time that our network is closed is unacceptable and what are we going to do about it. We have sat down for the first time with all the agencies, particularly with ACPO, and the new chief constable representing ACPO has said, "We accept that there are better ways we can do this now." It had been left for years. What they were doing was not bad. They were doing their job, but they were not taking into consideration the economic effects. What they were looking at was the investigation effects.

At the same time, who is in charge of what piece of the road at any time? A classic example is when I was up on the M62 visiting the Highways Agency headquarters. They had been monitoring a gentleman changing his wheel on the hard shoulder. His wife—it was definitely his wife; we did not know that at the time—got out of the passenger seat and walked around to the back, probably to say to him, "How long are you going to be", all the sorts of things you can expect people to be worried about. As she did so, they were hit by a 38-tonne lorry. The evidence shows that they were killed instantly. That motorway was closed for eight hours. The 1,000 cars that were trapped between the incident and the junction where the motorway was shut were allowed through on the outside lane after an hour, after the screen quite rightly had been put up. I asked why that lane was not left open, because any evidence that was in the lane would have been destroyed. The police did not have the confidence to hand that back to us at that stage. That is the sort of pressure we are putting on them under the new working arrangements. You have to ask the question why, Madam Chair. Those questions as to why, because it was different departments and different agencies, had not been asked and they are being asked now.

Q357 Julie Hilling: I want to ask about road safety, again about other road users. We have talked about the need for enhanced driving skills, etc, on motorways for car drivers, but what about motorbikes and cyclists? Often, they do not seem to think that the rules of the road apply to them, certainly in London where it seems to be all right if you just cycle through traffic lights. Is there anything that you as a Department are doing in terms of cycling proficiency, enforcement, etc, around that?

Mike Penning: This is where we are split—not split as in "split" but part of the portfolio sits with Norman and part of it sits with me. If he would like to do his bit, then I will do mine.

Norman Baker: We are doing quite a lot to encourage good techniques because we have given a commitment to fund Bikeability for the entirety of this spending review period, which is a commitment of £11 million this year. The Local Sustainable Transport Fund, which I referred to earlier on, of £560 million to encourage sustainable transport locally has been a vehicle for cycling, including safer cycling, off-road cycling for example, to be prioritised. A number of bids have come in from that. The funds have been well received by local authorities and there will be an announcement shortly on which have gone forward. Clearly, getting to cyclists early in life at cycle training is the best way to ensure that they stick to the rules of the road, which they have to do. They are not allowed to go through traffic lights at red. If we can get them trained properly at school level, there is a chance that they will carry on in a safe way throughout the rest of their cycling lives. But obviously there are road safety issues which Mike deals with in his part of the portfolio.

Mike Penning: Just before I touch on that, the big thing to do with cycling, especially with infringements of the Road Traffic Act, is enforcement. If a motorcyclist, car, bus, taxi or a lorry goes through a red light, they have a pretty good chance of getting a ticket through their letterbox in the next couple of weeks. You are not going to get that with a cyclist. It is education and, if you wish, some on­the­spot enforcement with the police having those powers.

We want to encourage more people to cycle, but I was born and bred in London and every day I have always seen cyclists do this; it is nothing new. They have been jumping the lights in London since I was a kid. Every now and again you see a statistic in your local paper as to what happens, because it is a lethal thing to do, but they do it every day. So many people commute, particularly in London, and cycle in these days. They think, "I come through these lights. I have always got away with it", and then invariably it will be something like a motorcyclist who is not in their vision who will pick them off. That, to me, is so sad because it is for the sake of a few seconds. The lights in London and other big cities change on such a regular basis and, as Norman was alluding to earlier on, highway authorities tweak around with the odd two, three, or four seconds. It is so sad for someone to lose their life just for a few seconds.

To go on to motorcycling, which I alluded to earlier on, one of my passions not only as a Minister but as a biker is that we massively get to grips with the deaths and serious injuries on motorcycles, which have been going in the wrong direction. There was a 4% increase last year, when everything else is going in the other direction. We have a full review going on into the test itself, which is off-road at the moment for the first part and then on-road. I know the Committee looked at this years ago, but I cannot understand how we got to a situation where someone could drive for an hour and a half on their motorcycle on their own to go to a test centre to take their off-road test and fail it and be allowed to drive back home again. It is an absolutely ludicrous situation. We need to go to one test, a single test, so people can be tested and see whether they are safe on the road or not.

But, at the same time, we need post-test skills. Too many people of my age going through a midlife crisis suddenly disappear down to the bike shop or see a motorcycle on eBay, go and buy themselves a huge great motorcycle, which is sitting in my garage, but they have not used those skills for 30 years. They may never have driven a bike of that sort of size.

Of course, the third group—not wishing to take the Committee's time up too much, Madam Chair; I do apologise—is what I call the casual scooter drivers or the commuter drivers. People wear inappropriate clothing when they are on a scooter or a moped. If we go outside today, we will see this; they think they are perfectly immune to whatever they are going to do. If they come off a scooter at a very low speed in London and they do not have appropriate clothing on, they are going to be scarred for life, if they do not lose your life. It is not motorcyclists; motorcyclists kit themselves. There are very few motorcyclists who do not do that. We are becoming a mini-Athens or Barcelona with scooters flying everywhere, and it is great because it is cheap and it is a lovely way to get around the city. But if you are not appropriately dressed with the proper sort of helmet on, you are putting your life dramatically at risk and we have to try and get through to people about that.

Q358 Steve Baker: It is a very short point and I think Mr Penning possibly largely answered it. In relation to cyclists, it just struck me that, surely, almost all cyclists know that they should not ride through red lights.

Mike Penning: Of course they do. It is like when you go to the pelican crossing and if it is green you walk, but you have a look to make sure, and if it is red you do not go across. It is not all of them because we must not put them all into a box, but there are a disproportionately high proportion in the bigger cities, particularly here in London, which is where my experience is. Sadly, they become a statistic.

Q359 Chair: Do we need any more legislation for more effective road management?

Mike Penning: I will say no. Norman will say—

Q360 Chair: I am going ask to each of you separately then. That will be an interesting answer. Mr Baker, what is your view?

Norman Baker: We need to look at what we have. We have this challenge going on to examine the legislation we have and we want to make sure it is fit for purpose. Sometimes we might need different legislation from what we have by tidying up what we have. So we are certainly looking at that. Certainly, in the street works area we want to make sure that the incentives or disincentives are the right ones, so I am examining that whole area now. We are not looking to pile on legislation but we are looking to make sure that the outcomes we all collectively want are delivered.

Q361 Chair: When do you think you will be in a position to make a decision on whether to introduce more legislation?

Norman Baker: On street works?

Q362 Chair: For example, street works, yes, or on any other areas.

Norman Baker: There is a process going on now, the Red Tape Challenge, which is looking at all aspects of road transport legislation, in which Mike and I have both been involved in different ways. I looked at the legislation related to buses and taxis yesterday, as a matter of fact. We are looking at that now and street works will come up in that process. This is now ongoing.

Mike Penning: For my sins, within the Department, as well as all these other hats, Madam Chair, I am the Deregulation Minister and I represent the Department on the relevant Cabinet committee. In the Red Tape Challenge, we are looking in this particular area at about 450 pieces of legislation that we feel may not be fit for purpose, appropriate or of any use whatsoever. We need to remove as much as we can, but we also have the commitment that for non-EU legislation—I stress non-EU legislation because about 50% of what comes across my desk is EU legislation—it is one in, one out.

Q363 Chair: Can you give us any examples of useless legislation?

Mike Penning: There is legislation around to do with horses and carts—where you are allowed to tie them up and what you can do with them. I cannot remember the last time I saw a horse and cart in London or in a big city.

Q364 Chair: Are there any other examples of things that we might all remember seeing?

Norman Baker: I think there is an offence of furious driving which only applies to taxi drivers because they used to be Hackney Carriage drivers, from about 1847. I must admit I have not seen any taxi drivers driving furiously; they drive rather slowly in my experience, to keep the clock ticking over. That is one example perhaps. There are two sorts of law that need to be dealt with. There are laws that happen to be redundant such as the horse and cart legislation, which, frankly, should be tidied up while we are looking at legislation, but the other legislation is that which perhaps has become outdated or a barrier to what we want to achieve. It is that in which we are more interested. The taxi legislation, for example, is very complicated. We dealt with this last time I was before the Committee and we need to look at that. I have asked the Law Commission if they will take that as a study project to try and tidy it up or recommend how we might tidy up taxi legislation because it is hugely complicated and goes back to early Victorian times. It is a bit of a mess, frankly.

Mike Penning: As we develop the localism agenda more and more, which we are very committed to, there is legislation, for instance, that requires the Department or a Minister in the Department to allow something to happen, which is on the local agenda.

Q365 Chair: But in relation to this inquiry, how do you reconcile, Mr Penning, the Government's commitment to localism—perhaps I should address this to both of you—with the need to look at road networks? How can it all be local if you have these areas and networks?

Mike Penning: The networks are controlled. The national road network is controlled by central Government and we have the Highways Agency as our vehicle to do that. We give guidance to local government, but we do not dictate to local government how they should operate in their area because that would be wrong.

I will give a classic example. We have just seen Formula 1 this weekend, which was on a partly road circuit in Canada. For any motor vehicle event in the UK at all or any vehicle event that is motorised, there has to be an Act of Parliament passed for each individual one, which in the 21st century is ludicrous. If the local authority and the Motorsports Association want to do a karting event somewhere or there is the Isle of Man TT or something like that on the mainland of the UK, they cannot do that without the Secretary of State and myself agreeing to pass an Act of Parliament. That came in from 1928. To me, that is ludicrous in the 21st century.

Norman Baker: This is an example of the point Mike was making about Ministers having to deal with matters which we should not be dealing with, in my view. One of the first things I was asked to do was to sign off the roadworks permit scheme for Northamptonshire. I said, "Why am I doing this? What has it got to do with me? If Northamptonshire wants it, why doesn't Northamptonshire get on with it?" We are going to take away, or we are consulting on taking away, the power of the Secretary of State to have to give authorisation for permit schemes.

The interesting philosophical question is then whether you get diversity, which has implications for roadworks operatives across the country if you have slightly different arrangements in each area. To some extent you do get diversity, but that is a price worth paying to get the localised tailored solution you want for each area, rather than trying to impose a Napoleonic top­down arrangement on local authorities.

Q366 Chair: You see it as diversity rather than postcode lotteries.

Norman Baker: Absolutely. I think it will also drive up performance; I really do. I have seen local authorities in my time as a local councillor who wanted to do things and been stopped from doing them. If you allow experimentation to some extent at local authority level, then you will find some really good ideas coming forward. It will drive up performance to have central Government letting local government free to experiment.

Mike Penning: Just to clarify, I do not want to mislead the Committee. If the Committee would like to look at the 450-plus pieces of legislation, they are on the Cabinet Office website.

Q367 Chair: Is the managed motorways scheme going to be adequate?

  Mike Penning: Adequate, Madam Chair, is a really difficult thing. Is it going to allow us, in these difficult financial times, to sweat the assets and get more out of our motorways than before? Yes, it is. As I said right at the start, I was sceptical about managed motorways, particularly with hard shoulder running. I went in with an open mind and I was wrong. The evidence from the M42—which was, to be fair, massively over-engineered to prove the point in the pilot; now they have rolled back a lot of engineering—is that it is working. What is a disappointment is that we have committed ourselves to some really serious expenditure on motorway widening when we could have gone for hard shoulder managed motorways. The National Audit Office report indicates that about £1.2 billion was inappropriately spent.

Q368 Chair: We received some evidence from the police who expressed concern about applying the scheme to other sorts of motorway where they think accidents might occur more often and it might be more difficult to deal with them.

Mike Penning: I would be very interested to read that. I have not had that. Of course I work very closely with the police. Earlier on, there were concerns as to whether or not we could reinstate the hard shoulder when we had breakdowns, etc. The gantry technology and the way the cameras work, not just to prosecute people for speeding, has indicated that where we have had those instances, it has worked really well. We have had no instances of people being marooned, any more than they would have been on any other motorway in any other incident.

Q369 Chair: Mr Baker, could you tell us your general views on bus priority lanes? We have had conflicting evidence about their usefulness.

Norman Baker: I sort of dealt with that earlier on. Bus lanes have a useful role to play and a particularly useful role to play in a concentrated urban area, where there is perhaps congestion and a very frequent bus service is held up. The evidence I have seen from different places is that in those sorts of locations, by providing a bus lane, which gets the bus from A to B much quicker than the car does, you can get significant modal shift from car to bus, to such a degree that the number of cars is reduced in the sense that the car is perhaps no worse off at the end of it but the bus passengers are much better off. In those sorts of location bus priority lanes are very useful. But they have to be tailored for individual circumstances. Not every road is appropriate for a bus lane. Some roads are appropriate for long bus lanes; some are appropriate for 24-hour bus lanes; some are appropriate only in rush hours. It has to depend on the individual circumstance in the individual town, and councils will be best to take that forward. But I have no doubt that bus lanes are a significant tool. Certainly, bus operators will tell me that they are very useful in getting people on to buses.

Q370 Chair: Do you have the impression that they are managed reasonably by the local authorities and transport authorities?

Norman Baker: Like anything else, many are managed very well and some are managed not very well, but you could pick any function of local government or, indeed, national Government and apply that solution to it.

  Chair: Thank you very much, gentlemen, for coming and answering our questions.


 
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