HC Deb 21 May 1965 vol 712 cc1925-7

Not amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.

11.8 a.m.

Mr. Oscar Murton (Poole)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The purpose of this modest Bill is to retain the duty which the existing law lays upon a highway authority to remove an obstruction arising in a highway from an accumulation of snow or any other cause, but changes the law by giving magistrates more discretion in enforcing that duty.

On current interpretation, if a resident of a district applies to a justice of the peace for a notice requiring the highway authority to clear an obstruction, the justice has no option but to serve the notice requiring the obstruction to be cleared, within 24 hours, even though he may know that to do so would not be in the best interests of the public at large.

The classic case is that which occurred in the Borough of Barnes in January 1963 towards the end of that extremely hard winter. That authority had managed to keep the main traffic roads and shopping centres reasonably clear, but the side roads could not be touched. At that point in time the corporation's manpower and equipment were at full stretch and supplies of salt were also running low. On 25th January, a local resident made application before the local justices for the issue of a notice under Section 129 of the Highways Act, 1959, which, as the House is probably aware, reproduces almost word for word a similar provision in the Highways Act of 1835.

The court was clearly uncertain of the position. The justices heard the complainant and required him to indicate which accumulation of snow was the subject of the application. They went to view it and found it to be a pile of snow in a side road cleared from the pavement and lying in a gully on the opposite side of the road from the complainant's house.

The justices returned and invited the borough engineer to state what was being done about snow clearance in the borough. After retiring, the chairman of the bench said that Section 129 appeared to them mandatory and that it was the duty of the bench to comply with the Section and serve notice on the highway authority. At the same time, he said, the difficulties of the highway authority in fulfilling their responsibilities were obvious and the bench did not wish to contemplate the situation which could arise if all those who were similarly entitled were also to make application to the court.

The point of this short incursion into the past troubles of the borough engineer of Barnes is to illustrate how serious the situation could be in future if the existing Section 129 were not amended. There could well be a scandalous waste of the ratepayers money, because snow clearance is a rate-borne expenditure, and a serious dispersion of manpower and equipment and a wastage of a vital commodity such as salt, which is so often in short supply during a severe and protracted winter.

The Amendment proposed to the existing Section 129 of the Highways Act, 1959, would remove from the magistrates the possible dilemma of having to satisfy the complaint of an individual at the expense of others' rights, by preventing a diversion of the resources of manpower, vehicles and equipment available to a highway authority for work on highways, in any case where the highway authority could establish that a higher priority existed for their utilisation elsewhere. The Bill also substitutes a magistrates' court for a single justice and provides for the issue to be brought before the court by the usual procedure for an order.

There is no provision in the new Clause 1 for specific penalty as there is in subsection (3) of the existing Section. When the Section was first enacted in 1835, the authority responsible for clearing obstructions was the parish surveyor. Highway authorities are now more substantial bodies and it was felt that it would be invidious to suggest that a penalty was needed to make them carry out a court order. In any case, Section 54 of the Magistrates Court Act, 1952, would apply automatically in the event of default. The Bill makes no change in the position of persons liable to maintain a highway by reason of tenure, enclosure or prescription. The number of these persons is very small, but, as the general law still places obligations on them, there seems to be no reason to modify their duty in regard to obstructions on the highway. It is of interest that this provision does not absolve the highway authority, whose obligation under Section 129 extends to highways not maintainable by the authority.

The House will note that no fundamental change in the law is proposed. The right of a private citizen to complain to the magistrates' court is maintained and it will still be the duty of the highway authority to remove obstructions.

11.14 a.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Stephen Swingler)

I rise to commend the Bill to the House and to thank the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Murton) for the way in which he has piloted it through. We did not think that this Measure would set the House aflame, but it is, nevertheless, a useful and businesslike improvement of the highway law.

I should like to emphasise two things which have been mentioned by the hon. Member. First of all, this Measure in no way lessens the duty of the highway authorities to remove obstructions. That duty is quite clear and we hope at all times for a high standard of competence of highway authorities in carrying it out. Secondly, it in no way diminishes the right of the citizen to complain if highway authorities fail in that duty to remove obstructions. This Measure merely makes the use of that right more reasonable and gives to the courts, I think, a better and more up-to-date set of factors to be considered in regard to any obligations which they may impose upon the highway authorities. In this sense, the Measure is a minor Measure of modernisation. I hope, therefore, that the House will give it its Third Reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.