HC Deb 13 July 1965 vol 716 cc288-91

3.55 p.m.

Mr. Terence Boston (Faversham)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law regarding private street works. Perhaps I should clear up any shred of possible ambiguity at the outset by making it plain that the words in the Motion refer not to the problems of the pavement artist or roadside art exhibitions, but to a problem which presents a far worse picture—the problem of unmade roads. A Ministry of Housing and Local Government survey in 1960 estimated that there are 54,000 unmade roads, affecting perhaps 3 million people. These roads are not just a nuisance. They cause very real misery—[Interruption.]—and are a danger.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Will hon. Members be good enough to assist the hon. Gentleman to be heard? He is seeking the leave of the House.

Mr. Boston

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker.

As I was saying, these roads are not just a nuisance, but they are a cause of very real misery and are a danger as well; and I will come to one or two cases in a moment. The Bill would seek to help a little towards solving this problem. Before mentioning its aims, perhaps it would be better to say what it does not seek to do, because its aims are necessarily limited.

As for the general principle concerning private streets, it is the responsibility of frontagers themselves to make them up and the Bill would not seek to alter that general principle. Some people argue that the cost should be borne by the rates. There is some force in that argument, but the Bill would not seek to provide for that. Some people feel that the roads should be adopted by the highway authority as soon as they are substantially built on with dwellings and that the authority should then be responsible for making them up at the public expense. I have some sympathy with that view, especially if one regards housing as a public service, but the Bill would not go that far.

These people do not want something for nothing. Many of them have already paid their road charges, or are willing to do so, but what they want is action. Ironically, the present law is weighted too much towards protecting reluctant frontagers from eager councils anxious to get on with making up the roads, whereas it should be weighted more towards helping eager residents to get reluctant councils to act.

The present law is contained in the Highways Act, 1959, Part IX of which substantially re-enacted provisions in the Public Health Act, 1875, now known as the Code of 1875, the Private Streets Works Act, 1892, known as the Code of 1892, and the New Streets Act, 1951—the Advance Payments Code of 1951—which provides for the payment of charges when all new buildings are erected. But the Highways Act made no major changes and it will be seen that this law goes back to "88 B.B.", that is, "Before Buchanan" and, therefore, there may be a strong case for its thorough simplification and further overhaul.

The Bill would have no such ambitious aims. There is power at the moment to require a highway authority to act under Section 203 of the Highways Act, which provides for a majority of the frontagers, either in number of in terms of length of the street which they occupy, to give notice to the local authority to make up the road at the frontagers' own expense. There is possibly a case for reducing these percentages if they get on with doing the work themselves. Some local authorities require 90 per cent. before they will actually get on with the work. Here, the right of appeal to the Minister needs looking at in determining priority in getting on with a particular street.

There is also power, but not a duty, to put down a temporary surface where urgent repairs are needed. This power is contained in Section 204 of that Act and also in Section 47 of the Public Health Act, 1961, but, again, there is no duty. There is also the power and once more not a duty under Section 210 by which the highway authority itself can bear either the whole or part of the cost of carrying out the work, but there is no real evidence that this is very effective. The main aim of the Bill would be to extend the power effectively and to impose a duty to put down a temporary surface, for instance, of hardcore.

I should like to say a few words about the problem itself. In a rural district in my constituency, for example, there are about 20 miles of unmade roads and many of these are well built on. In the parish of Minster there are 10 miles of quite substantially built-up roads. It might be interesting to refer to the sort of cases which occur as a result of the state of these roads and let the incidents speak for themselves.

Last February, before there was any possibility of contemplating the action which I am now taking, I received a letter from a resident which, among other things, said: We have to wade ankle-deep in vile slime to get to our work, school or shops. When we return at night to an unlit hazard we commence a tough commando or survival course and if and when we reach our homes after bumps, falls and bruises we have to engage in a strip-tease act to prevent taking this insanitary muck into our treasured little homes. … Last year, a resident who suffered a heart attack died in hospital after the ambulance crew and local resident had to manhandle him to the ambulance over potholes, ditches and craters. In another emergency a fire brigade which was answering a call was held up. It took six hours to dig the fire engine out of the mud. There was another instance of an ambulance which could not be driven down the road and a man having to be carried on a stretcher for 200 yards in bad weather.

Perhaps the worst case of this kind was of a woman who was pregnant earlier this year. Suffering from labour pains she summoned the ambulance, which could only get a quarter of the way down the road. She had to walk, or perhaps stumble, would be a more appropriate word, the rest of the way. These are recent examples in just two roads, Saxburga Drive and Augustine Road. These are small parts of one parish, in one rural district of one constituency in the south of England. I shudder to think what the situation must be like in the less civilised parts of the country. I can confirm that my own car shuddered itself when it was driven over some of these roads. One might bear in mind that many sacrifices are made on the uneven paths of political action.

The main part of the Bill would seek to provide powers to require street works authorities to put down a temporary surface, not just for the urgent repairs I have referred to. It would also provide for appeal to the Minister against the refusal of the local authorities to do so. Initially, the cost would be borne by the frontagers, as with the normal making up of a road, and then the cost of maintaining this temporary surface at that standard would be borne by the highway authority itself.

The danger to be guarded against is that those provisions would not alter the further responsibility of the frontagers, which is to make up the roads properly before they are finally handed over and maintained by the street works authority itself. Many rural districts would like powers themselves to do the work under the existing Act. The Rural District Councils' Association has made repeated representations about this matter, and it is probably another provision which is needed.

This is a very serious problem, a desperate one, affecting the lives of a great many people, and I hope that the House will give leave to bring in this Bill and will facilitate its passage through the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Boston, Mr. Blenkinsop, Mr. Ennals, Mr. William Hamilton. Mr. Jackson, Mr. Charles R. Morris, Mr. Murray, Mr. S. C. Silkin, and Mrs. Shirley Williams.