HC Deb 08 July 1980 vol 988 cc485-505

3.1 am

The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Philip Goodhart)

I beg to move, That the draft Roads (Northern Ireland) Order 1980, which was laid before this House on 25 June, be approved. The House will have noted that this order is described as consolidating and amending the existing law relating to roads in Northern Ireland. At the present time, provisions relating to roads are to be found in dozens of enactments, some dating from the time of King William IV, including the Grand Jury (Ireland) Act 1836 up to the Roads and Road Traffic (Northern Ireland) Order, which became law in the summer of 1978. This body of law deals with matters ranging from the obsolete offence of skinning animals on the roadside to specifying the classes of traffic allowed to use motorways. Some provisions are no longer relevant to today's world and some are expressed in terms which are obscure.

Over the years there has been an increasing need not only for consolidation in more modern terminology of all those scattered provisions but for clarification of the law. This opportunity is also being taken to introduce certain new provisions, to which I shall refer later. The order should help hon. Members, as well as members of the legal profession and the public, to ascertain what the law is on matters relating to roads in the Province. The provisions are drafted as succintly as possible and are contained in only 65 articles and nine schedules. The fact that there is only one road authority in Northern Ireland has made the order less complicated, in that there needs to be no reference to the relationship between different road authorities.

Turning to the order, I should like to mention briefly the most significant of the new and amended provisions. Article 11 provides for all road bridges over operational railway lines to become the responsibility of the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland. This is already the case with bridges carrying motorways and trunk roads over railway lines, so this is a logical extension of those principles. This division of responsibility is also in accord with an EEC regulation that railways should not be left to bear all the costs of road over-bridges.

In article 25 the Department is given more direct and clearer powers to scour, to clean and to keep open drains situated in land beside roads. Where roads or traffic on them would be endangered or prejudiced by flooding, it is justifiable that the Department, as the road authority, should be able to take prompt and effective action. If land is damaged in the execution of these works compensation can be paid. All these powers bring the law into line with that in Great Britain.

Article 27 provides that dangerous ditches adjoining roads may be filled in or piped, depending on whether or not they are needed for drainage purposes.

Article 41 introduces provisions which are already law in Great Britain and which allow an existing potentially dangerous private access to be stopped up, either by agreement or by order made after opportunity of objection and hearing have been given. An order would not be made unless access to the land was not reasonably required or an alternative and reasonably convenient means of access was available or could be provided by the Department. This article provides for compensation and makes it an offence for a person to use an access which has been stopped up by order.

Article 42 re-enacts the law as it affects work carried out on or within certain distances of a road. This is necessary for the protection of the structure of the road and the safety of its users. The article is based on existing law but is more simple.

Control over the erection of structures outside the boundaries of roads would no longer be exercised under roads law but would still be a matter for planning control. There would no longer be any need for a person to obtain consent under roads as well as planning law.

In paragraph (1)(c) only a small part of the existing Roads Act access control is retained in relation to certain simpler types of access to agricultural land. These consist of accesses from fields to classified roads and also accesses to classified roads required in connection with development on agricultural land—that is, development which is classed as being permitted development under planning law.

As part of the simpler arrangements, specific consent or permission to open certain accesses to unclassified roads will no longer be needed provided that reasonable safety requirements are met. These concessions and requirements are set out in amendments to planning rules, which it is proposed to bring into force simultaneously with this order. But, even where the opening of access is free of control under roads and planning law, any work within the boundaries of a road will still need consent. Paragraph (2)(a) of article 42 makes it clear that where planning permission has been granted for an access it will not be an offence under this article to carry out any work associated with its construction—for example, the alteration of a drain or fence, or the surfacing of a verge. Those works would, of course, form part of the application for planning permission.

Paragraph (8) specifies additional types of planning application which may be treated as major planning applications—that is, after the hearing of an appeal, the Planning Appeals Commission would report its findings to the Department for a final decision. This would apply to accesses or developments alongside trunk roads and motorways.

I turn now to article 48, which deals with a variety of offences of causing danger or obstruction or annoyance to road users. This article restates in modern terms some of the offences which exist at present in section 10 of the Summary Jurisdiction (Ireland) Act 1851. The more obscure offences have been omitted. For example, it is no longer illegal to skin beasts, to fly kites or to winnow corn on a road. The offence of playing games on a road to the danger of road users has, at the instance of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, been incorporated in paragraph (6). Paragraph (2) is aimed at those who make unreasonable use of roads and road verges for camping or selling goods.

Hon. Members may have seen that the wording of paragraph (2) has been expanded for clarity of meaning and that a new paragraph (3) has been inserted to ensure that delivery men who are exempt from prosecution under the Street Trading Regulation Act (Northern Ire- land) 1929—for example, milk roundsmen—are also exempt from this article.

In paragraph (7) of the article is the re-enactment of the offences of turning animals loose on to a road and of causing injury or damage by the reckless driving of animals on a road. While paragraph (8) revises the offence committed by a person when his animal is found wandering on a road, paragraph (9) responds to representations which were made for a form of defence for the person who can show that he took all reasonable care to prevent his animal from wandering.

In article 50(1) a new offence is created of allowing material to fall from any part of a vehicle on to a road so as to cause danger or substantial inconvenience to road users. This provision refers, for example, to the mud which drops off the wheels or underbodies of vehicles leaving construction sites or muddy fields. It is quite often apparent that drivers leave trails of mud along roads regardless of the danger which could be caused to traffic, especially at night, or in wet weather. It is already an offence to load a vehicle in such a way that if the load should fall off it would cause danger or nuisance, and the new provisions in this article—which have the approval of the police—will strengthen the law and should help keep roads clearer of these hazards.

Article 51 lays down the framework for control over the siting and marking of builders' skips on roads. Hon. Members may note that paragraph (3) authorises the making of regulations specifying positions and circumstances in which a skip should not be placed without the specific consent of the Department.

I should perhaps explain that when control over builders' skips was first introduced for Northern Ireland two years ago it was believed that regulations could be framed which would give sufficient control in the interests of road safety, and that it would not be necessary to introduce the Great Britain system where permission is needed for each skip placed on a road. However, the difficulties in drafting such regulations have led to the amended provisions in paragraph (3), the effect of which is that while regulations could forbid generally the siting of a skip in places where a vehicle may not lawfully wait—for instance on yellow lines—the Department would be enabled to give consent to the skip being sited in a safe part of the road.

Articles 55 and 56 set out in some detail powers needed by the Department to enter land which it does not own, and to carry out works in order to perform its functions as road authority. The articles also spell out the procedures to be followed if agreement is not reached with the owner or occupier of the land, and provide for reinstatement of land and for compensation in case of damage. The provisions of article 55 equate with the powers which the Department already has for the exercise of its other functions under several enactments, and Article 56 re-enacts existing powers, duties and offence provisions.

Hon. Members will, I am sure, have noted the new provisions in article 60, which require the Department to consult each district council at least once a year about the way in which the Department proposes to exercise its functions under this order in the area of the council. In fact, this form of consultation has been the practice since 1973, when road authority functions were centralised. Paragraph (2) of article 60 requires the Department to pay due regard to any representation made by a council. The requirements of this article are identical with those already placed on the Department in connection with its functions as water and sewerage authority for the Province, and they accord with the legal status of the Department as the sole authority for public roads in Northern Ireland. The order is based on that existing status, but does not, of course, prejudice any decision for the future administration of roads functions. Indeed, the consolidation of roads law into this one enactment would not hinder any future amendment of the law that might he needed.

The schedules contain the various procedures, amendments and repeals made necessary by this order. For example, the procedure to be followed by the Department for the compulsory acquisition of land is set out in schedule 5 and is based on the procedure which is used for vesting land for local government purposes. All penalties in the order have been the subject of special examination in the light of the gravity of each offence, and of the equivalent penalties in Great Britain. In appropriate cases the maximum penalties have been increased to realistic levels.

I commend the order to the House. I am sure that it will be welcomed as a convenient, comprehensive and clear statement of the law on public roads in Northern Ireland.

3.16 am
Mr. Tom Pendry (Stalybridge and Hyde)

Over the past few hours many references have been made to the lateness of the hour, but most of the hon. Members who made them are probably now asleep or on their way home. Northern Ireland Members of Parliament, Ministers, and party spokesmen for Northern Ireland are used to discussing important issues in the wee small hours of the morning. This morning is rather more special than most because many of us later this morning have to be in the Northern Ireland Committee to discuss the Fair Employment Agency's report and then to attend a major debate on the Government's proposals for constitutional reform in Northern Ireland. I shall be exceptionally brief, because I believe that on issues of this sort the first-hand experience of the Northern Ireland representatives is invaluable.

On behalf of the Opposition, I welcome the order in general. As the Minister said, it is a consolidation order. He made out a good case for it. However, I doubt whether the effects of articles 11, 25, 41, 42 and 43 will be as insignificant in cost as the Minister appears to think. I should be surprised if the net effect of the streamlining operation would not involve additional expense. We shall have to wait and see. It seems to be a sensible order, and we shall support it.

I shall restrict myself to one comment, and perhaps the Minister, when he replies, will give his view on it. I refer to the general application of article 60 dealing with the question of consultation with district councils. Is he satisfied that a minimum of one meeting is sufficient requirement for consultation with district councils with respect to the proposals of the Department to exercise its functions under the order? I believe that I am right in saying that the same provision applies to the water and sewerage industries, but the consultation is considered inadequate. If it is inadequate, it should be spelt out in the order that one meeting is not enough. District councils would feel closer to the Department if it were clearly laid down that there would be more occasions when consultation could take place.

That is the only issue that I want to put to the Minister. This order is probably as much ours as his, and, therefore, it is very sensible. I believe that the hon. Gentleman has listened carefully to and taken note of the representations that have been made to him by Northern Ireland Members. The order is better for that, and I support it.

3.20 am
Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

I agree in large measure with what the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) said about Northern Ireland Members, Ministers and Shadow Ministers being used to having debates in the small hours of the morning. Bearing in mind that Scottish Members still have some business to do and that other hon. Members were here in the small hours of the morning, we do not feel so bad about it because others have had to bear the burden and heat, if there has been any burden and heat, in the small hours. As the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde said, this will be a long and important day for Northern Ireland Members, so we cannot gripe too much about what is happening.

This is a hefty order of 64 articles and eight schedules. It contains 28 amendments and 38 repeals of various Acts. Therefore, it will need some digesting. It is to be regretted that we have to deal with it at this hour and do not have time to develop some of the points set forth in it. I fear that if the order is not implemented with generosity, it could be arbitrary and attract much opposition in Northern Ireland, especially in the rural districts.

I should like elucidation on some points to which I shall draw the Minister's attention. Some of them seem to be most difficult. First, article 11 provides: This Article applies to every bridge which carries a road over a railway line". What happened about bridges over disused railway lines? Were they transferred to the railway holding company, or have they been kept heretofore in the possession of the Northern Ireland Trans- port Holding Company? Were they ever transferred? Whose responsibility were they? I should like to know what has happened about those bridges.

Article 25—"Drainage of roads"—is quite lengthy and deals with surface water. This is an important matter for farmers. I have made strong representations to the Minister about surface water on the road at the Craigs, Ballymena, where the Department opened a cut at the side of the read. I notice in paragraph (7) that a 'drain' includes any ditch, cut, culvert, soak-away dyke or sluice. The Department cut a dyke and allowed the surface water to go into a farmer's property. That farmer now has a third of a large field continually under water. I have had the Department's officials out and they have said to the farmer "It is too bad, but there is no way in which we can do anything about it." They warned him that he was not to close the cut.

I should like the Minister to expand on that matter and to tell us the position of the owner-occupier of the land. Is there any remedy? As officials have told me in the company of the owner of the land, there is no remedy and the Department is entitled to take the surface water and allow it to flow into the farmer's land. He has been told that he cannot block up the cut. If I were that farmer, I would block up the cut. I would not allow my farm to be flooded. I should like the Minister to say whether this order will help that farmer, or whether it will give more strength to his Department to make these cuts in the road to remove surface water.

I do not understand article 42(1)(c). It provides: Any person who without the consent of the Department…constructs any means of access to a classified road from agricultural land…where the construction of that access would be permitted by a development order; What is at present permitted will become an offence and people will be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £200. I should like the Minister to expound on that. His elucidations so far have not helped me. Perhaps he will make another attempt to tell us exactly what this means. Does it mean that what a farmer can do today he will not be able to do tomorrow, when this order becomes law? Members of the farming community need access to and from their land at various times. How does this part of article 42 relate to the farming community, and has it been discussed with the farming community?

Regarding consultation with district councils, article 60(1) states that the Department shall consult where it appears necessary or desirable to do so and in any case at least once in each year. That is a mild burden on the Department. The Department may not think it desirable to consult the district council. Why should it be left so open? The article should state that the Department "must" consult at least once in each year. The Department can say that consultation is not desirable, and that it does not need to consult the local authority or the district council.

I realise that article 60(2) states that A district council may make representations to the Department. But how will it know what the Department will do? Who will tell it that the Department will take action under this order?

Schedule 2 contains wider powers. It states that: Notice under Article 30 may be served— (a) upon the owner or occupier of the land directing him— (i) to remove any building or structure whether permanent or temporary, the removal of which is in the opinion of the Department expedient for the prevention of any such danger as is mentioned in that Article; Many buildings in Northern Ireland are close to rural roads and certainly obstruct the view of traffic along those roads. This schedule is written so widely that as a result notices could be served on the owner or occupier of the land directing him to remove structures or buildings. It would need to be used very carefully, because there are, especially in the rural districts, many buildings and homesteads that are right next to the road. I can think of half a dozen roads in my area where the roadway almost runs into the gable end of some homes. I see a nod from the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw), for he has been along some of these roads. This matter needs to be taken on board. I should like an assurance from the Min- ister that the order will on no occasion be used against a place of residence.

I do not like the Lands Tribunal because it is one of those courts from which there is no appeal. Secondly, it is a court in which, if one does not win, one pays all. Under the regulations that the Minister has in mind, will those who have to go to the Lands Tribunal because they are not satisfied about compensation be subject to the old rule that if they do not win their case they have to pay the costs of the Department and their own costs? What exactly does the Minister have in mind as regards that matter?

Turning back to page 26, I wonder why the person who is in charge of a vehicle and allows a quantity of mud, clay, lime, farmyard manure, or other material from the vehicle to drop on the road is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £200, when a person who has land and who wilfully or recklessly allows any filth, dirt, lime or other offensive matter to run or flow on to a road can be fined only up to £50. I should have thought that both offences were parallel. I wonder why there is that change.

The Minister pointed out that under article 51, paragraph 2, regulations would be made. I take it that, because this is a Northern Ireland order based on a Northern Ireland Act, these regulations would not be subject to any approval in this House. I should like the Minister to enlarge upon that. Does that mean that, because the order is made under the Northern Ireland Act 1974, there will be no possibility of discussing the regulations or in any way having representations made on the Floor of this House or through Parliament to deal with them?

The Minister has done very well to deal with the matter of skips on the road, because I believe that they have constituted a danger to the general public. I hope that the fact that games that are dangerous are to be banned from the roadways does not mean that youngsters who have no other place to play cannot have an occasional game of football on certain roads. I hope that it will not be strictly interpreted by the Royal Ulster Constabulary because I think that a person who wants to kick a ball is as much entitled to do that as a person who wants to fly a kite. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. I hope that the Minister will intimate to the authorities that, although this power is written into the order, in certain circumstances football would not be reckoned to be a dangerous game, any more than it would be dangerous to fly a kite in certain areas. Politicians, and especially the present Government, are flying many kites at present.

However, I am thankful that there is a consolidation measure before the House. It was needed. There are many things in the order which are helpful. But the matters that I have raised need to be elucidated. I trust that the Minister can meet us pretty fair on these issues.

3.34 am
Mr. Wm. Ross (Londonderry)

I should like to reiterate the remarks already made about the lateness of the hour. At least we are up early this morning. I thank the Minister for the meeting that we had on 5 March, which was both long and helpful. For two hours we severely tried his patience and that of his civil servants. However when he considers the changes that resulted from that meeting, he will agree that it was worthwhile. There is a long list of changes. Many are minor, but some are major. Some are simply drafting alterations. I was also happy with the assurances that we were given on that occasion, and with the explanations of several aspects of the order.

I note that the fines have been revamped. As the Minister said, there has been a "rethink". Most fines went up. However, according to article 48, two of the fines have been reduced from £100 to £50. I am curious to know why. Are they the only two fines to be halved? If so, why? A reduction is unusual at a time of inflation.

The Minister was very helpful, but he failed to meet many of our points. I welcome the removal of the six-month limit on compensation for damage to agricultural land caused by the Department, or its servants. We are greatly concerned, because there is enormous friction between landowners and those who work for the road service about how water has got into a field. They dispute whether the little gap in the hedge has always been there, or whether it is a new one. They argue about who made it and how it occurred. Sometimes one begins to think that the Lord has created the gaps. Somebody digs them, and there is usually a row when the farmer finds his field full of water. Such an intrusion of water can continue for a long time before it comes to the notice of the landowner. The removal of the six-month bar is a great help. Given that change, the Minister should tell us whether the removal of the six-month period runs from the date on which the order comes into force. Perhaps he will clarify whether individuals can seek compensation under the existing conditions. That is important to landowners.

Articles 26 and 27 deal with drainage from roads. Most of the provisions appear fair and reasonable. However, public relations are important. If someone talks to the landowner reasonably, much of the friction can be avoided. Could one not whisper a word in the ears of engineers and suggest that someone should talk to landowners before they embark on drainage schemes? We might then achieve a reasonable and a friction-free result.

Article 29 covers the removal of fallen structures. I hope that due discretion will be exercised after a bad storm. An enormous number of trees fall across roads. I hope that due discretion will be shown in chopping up and removing such trees. Those of us who have seen such things happen—and fortunately it has never happened to me—know the result. The tree, which is usually an excellent piece of timber, has fallen across the road and the workmen come along to clear it. They simply saw it off at the hedge on both sides of the road, when a little forethought would have told them that it would be much easier to saw it off at ground level and lift the whole think back. At least then something would have been salvaged, and the tree would not end up as nothing more nor less than firewood.

Article 31 provides that if the Department is of the opinion that a building wall or structure is in such condition as to be dangerous to road users, the Department would serve a notice on the owner or occupier requiring him to carry out repair works or to remove or enclose the structure. The real problem here lies in article 31(b), which provides that there is in or on any land adjoining a road an unfenced or inadequately fenced source of danger to persons using the road. May we be told what sort of fencing is considered adequate? I think particularly of roads which run through bogs, many of them raised a considerable height above the level of the surrounding countryside, and some of them unfenced or poorly fenced. If a car runs off the road, or if a pedestrian or cyclist falls off it and is seriously injured, who will be held responsible?

The Minister must have some idea what constitutes adequate fencing if his Department is to have the power to serve a notice on the owner or occupier requiring him to carry out fencing to required standards. Is the sort of standard that is being aimed at that laid down by the Department of Agriculture? That appears to be more than reasonable; indeed in many cases it would be unreasonable to ask for that level of fencing.

Article 41(3), to which the Minister drew attention, says that the Department may agree with the occupiers that they may provide a new means of access to the land. I have never liked this word "may" in legislation, especially if carrying out the "may" means that it will cost the Department money. I wonder why the word is not "shall". Then the owners would have proper redress against the stopping up of an access.

In article 42, which deals with the restriction of building, and the alteration of fences and so on, we come to a very difficult and important area for those people who live in houses built close to the road, and with buildings close to roads. This lays down careful instructions about the distance one must keep from the centre of various classes of road. But it does not say what the position is whenever an individual decides to reconstruct or build on an existing site. What is the position? When the individual finds that he has a building that has deteriorated to such an extent that it must be replaced, does he find himself blocked from rebuilding on the same site by virtue of this provision? That is what it appears to mean.

Under paragraph (2) a person can carry out lawful repair work, but there is no provision for replacing that which is falling down. The Minister should clear up that matter. The paragraph covers walls around gardens or farmyards and, in extreme cases, the fencing of farmland, although that is also covered elsewhere in the order.

Article 48 is in some ways the most important article. Fines are reduced rather than raised. Paragraph (2) deals with people selling goods along a road. That is a common practice, which appears to be growing. Potatoes, tomatoes strawberries and apples can be bought at the roadside. In County Armagh there are fixed stalls outside farmhouses where apples are sold for a large part of the year. What is the position of people who have such stalls? What is the position of the individual selling his apples or strawberries by the side of a public road? What is the position of the chap who parks his fish and chip van in a lay-by or on the side of a main road in order to start selling? Will these people be moved on, or will there be a loophole?

The most important aspect of the matter relates to campers, most of whom are gypsies. They can stay in an area for many months, and create an enormous amount of filth, debris and noise. They cause considerable annoyance to local residents. What is their position? How is "road" defined? How wide is a road? Does the definition also include grass verges, some of which are very wide? Can the people encamped be moved on? How long will it take to bring such campers to court? We have lived with the problem for many years. Is the law strong enough to deal with these people?

Paragraph (6) reads: Any person who plays a game on a road to the danger of a user of the road shall be guilty of an offence". In the original proposal the word was "annoyance" and not "danger". I can see reasons for changing the word, but there are occasions when annoyance could be caused with no resulting danger. Would it not have been preferable to use both words, which would have covered the range of possibilities? Ball games in towns can cause annoyance. It is all very well to say that no one wants to stop children kicking a ball around, but in Housing Executive estates in Northern Ireland there are continual problems of children playing with footballs, which causes trouble, particularly for the elderly. Almost every housing estate is full of signs nailed on walls saying "No ball games". By changing the word to "danger", are we preventing the Housing Executive from posting such notices? If that is so, many of my constituents will regard that as a retrograde step.

I welcome the defence for farmers whose animals stray or are maliciously let out. That is essential and I am glad that it has been written into the order. A problem arises over who is to determine what are "reasonable precautions". Would a lock on a gate qualify? Would a farmer who kept his gates shut be safe? I advise stockholders that they should insure against damage that may be caused.

The definition of "animal" is given with great precision in article 48. Does the Minister consider that to be wise? Animal means any horse (including pony, ass, and mule), cattle, sheep, goat or swine". It does not include poultry, dogs or cats. Anyone who has had a hen fly across the front of his windscreen, as happened to me, knows that that is a source of danger. What would be the position of someone who had an accident in such circumstances? I may be nit picking, but the matter could have been dealt with by a reference to "any animal" rather than by specifying individual animals.

Article 53 deals with the problem of acquiring land. Land can not only be acquired, but can be acquired within 200 metres of the middle of a road. That covers a large area of Northern Ireland. There are many roads within 400 metres of each other.

The Minister may dispose of any land so acquired. Recently land that was acquired by the Ministry of Defence was given outline planning permission, following an application by the Department of the Environment, and was sold by public auction. If that land had not had outline planning permission, it would have had to be offered to the original owner. May we have an assurance from the Minister that the Crichel Down example will not be evaded by outline planning permission being sought for any land that he may take under his control? If that device is to be used, the Minister will bring a nest of hornets about his ears.

On articles 55 and 56, I welcome the Minister's assurances that his officials will behave in a responsible and reasonable manner. May I make a plea that whenever new roads are being constructed, great care is taken to inform landowners of exactly what is to happen? Every hon. Member who has had to deal with the aftermath of a new road will know what I mean. If more care had been taken in public relations in the early stages of major repairs or the construction of bypasses, half of the problems would not have occurred.

The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) said that article 42(1)(c) did not make sense. It seems to me that the word "not" has been left out.

Due regard must be paid to consultations. I served on a local council. The word "consult" is scattered all over local government legislation in Northern Ireland. It appears in nearly all interfaces. My experience tells me that either there should be no duty to consult or that the local authorities should be left in control. They should not be left hanging in midair. Responsibility should rest with the Minister. If it is left with councils which do not have the responsibility, an irresponsible attitude will be created because at the end of the day they are not able to take a final decision. Officials will be placed in an impossible position. The Minister should either wipe out the consultations or give councils real powers.

This is a valuable order. If common sense prevails, it will do much good.

3.56 am
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

At 3.56 am I am supposed to make a valuable contribution to a debate on roads. No hon. Member is at his best at this time of the morning, especially since at 10.30 am we are expected to be in Committee.

Many parts of the measure are welcome. We thank the Minister for taking us on a trip down the Northern Ireland roads legislation memory lane. We are pleased that the kite flyers will be able to fly their kites high.

I am a member of a district council. I welcome the extension for consultation. My council of Castlereagh received a circular dated 12 October 1979 asking for comments on the legislation before 30 November. Anyone who knows how councils operate will know that by the time such a circular goes to committee and comes back to council, the period for consultation is over. I hope that the Minister's right hon. and hon. Friends will take note that he is prepared to extend the period for consultation and that they will provide more time for consultation on other subjects.

I take a different view from some hon. Members about article 60. We have a good relationship with the roads division in our area. It comes to us three times a year. What does the Minister consider to be "due regard" to a district council's views? Invariably it is a case of merely listening to a view and doing what was intended anyway. The consultation period provides an opportunity for councillors to get their views off their chest and to tell their voters that they have done something. That is as far as it goes. I have to follow what was said by the hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Ross), namely, that teeth should be given to councils where roads are concerned. Consultation is not enough.

Will the Minister clarify a point in relation to article 60? As he knows, councils already have visits from the divisional roads manager on a regular basis. Is the Minister now saying that there will be a further period of consultation at least once a year on this specific piece of legislation? Or is that expected to be contained within the general comments the divisional roads manager makes on his rounds of the district councils?

The question of to whom a thing is necessary or desirable arises. It is always necessary or desirable to the Department, and sometimes when district councils wish to comment we find that people are not so willing to listen. Perhaps the Miniser will take on board the question of consultation and inform us what he believes is the due regard to be paid to the views of councils.

Moving on to article 41, perhaps the Minister can tell us about the stopping-up of private accesses. We note under that article that Where the Department considers that the use of a private means of access from a road to any land is likely to cause danger to, or to interfere unreasonably with traffic on the road, the Department may make an order providing for— (a) the stopping-up of the access to the land." Although the measure is qualified in some respects in that it says No order shall be made…unless the Department is satisfied as to various aspects, there does not appear to be any appeal against the decision of the Department. It seems that the Department can consider the matter alone. I would have thought that farmers in particular, who might be most affected by this legislation, would think it unlikely that the Department could in any reasonable way act as both advocate and judge in the matter. I imagine that if the Department was the directing body it could hardly be relied upon to give an independent judgment on the matter. Can the Minister say whether the arbitration section in the order has any bearing on that issue, or what appeal is open to aggrieved persons?

Will the Minister also give some guidance on snow clearance? I think that all hon. Members will encounter many problems during the winter period. I had 22 cases brought to my notice of people seeking to sue the Deparment after accidents during the last spell of snow. I notice that the provision deals specifically with obstruction and, again, exclusively on the roads. Does the provision have any bearing on obstructions on footpaths?

I note that the Department has written to at least some of the district councils about the availability of labour when there is packed snow and the roads have to be cleared. Obviously, district council works staff cannot be employed on other matters, and they are available. But there is a legal problem about council staff working on the clearing of footpaths should one of them sustain an accident. If that happened, the likely conclusion is that the person would have the right to sue the council and not the Department.

If the Minister is seeking co-operation from the councils on normal snow clearance and clearing obstructions perhaps he can clarify the position and say whether the council can help the Department in any other way such as by hiring staff to the Department. This is a matter of great concern because the Department at present clears some of the main arteries and leaves all the estates and side roads completely blocked. That matter certainly needs attention.

What will be the likely effect of the order on the finances of the Department? Many road construction firms in Northern Ireland are laying off men because of the severe cuts in the budget. I understand that the cuts amount to between 10 per cent. and 18 per cent. in some areas. These are having a devastating effect on employment in the road construction and repair section.

4.5 am

Mr. Goodhart

I am grateful for the help that I have received from certain hon. Members from Northern Ireland in the preparation of the order. I am also grateful for the contributions that hon. Members have made this morning.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) ended where the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) began—namely, by asking whether the order will increase costs for the Department of the Environment. I have been anxious on that score. I am assured that the extra cost to the budget of the Department of the Environment will be negligible, although in certain instances rights to compensation are increased and improved. I am told, however, that there should be no need for any extra staff.

The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde and all those who took part in the debate referred to article 60 and the degree of consultation that will be necessary between officers of the road service and the district councils. That will increase the amount of consultation that is required. It will increase by at least one the number of required consultations with a district council. I am sure that all hon. Members will hope that consultation between officers of my Department and the district councils will go far beyond the minimum levels that are laid down in the order. It is my intention to improve consultation throughout the Province notwithstanding that it is close and good in many areas.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East invites me to discuss the philosophical question of what good consultation means. I do not think that I can reasonably do that at this hour. However, we know satisfactory consultation when it is achieved and we know when it is not achieved. Hon. Members and the district councils concerned are quick to let me know whether there is room for improvement.

The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) raised many detailed points. Because of the lateness of the hour and the fact that we have more business ahead of us, I shall write to him on a number of those detailed points. I can assure him that, when it comes to the subject of drains, which issue he raised under article 25, this order increases the responsibility for paying compensation to landowners rather than the reverse. I do not want to argue now about the true meaning of article 42(1)(c) which, if we had the time, could be argued over for an hour and still be obscure.

The hon. Members for Londonderry (Mr. Ross) and for Antrim, North were concerned about the playing of games in the road. This is a question which has exercised me in the preparation of this order. The old rules laid down that Any person who plays any game or flies a kite or makes or uses a slide of snow or ice on a road to the annoyance of a user of the road shall be guilty of an offence. That seems to be absurdly restrictive and I believe that the balance we have struck is infinitely better.

The hon. Member for Antrim, North was rightly worried about schedule 2 and the powers in it. They are wide powers. They re-enact section 19 of the Roads Act (Northern Ireland) 1948. In so far as there is a change in this order it does allow the Department to pay for the works required and there is, therefore, a substantial improvement. The hon. Member for Londonderry was anxious about the acquisition of drains and the need for officers to be tactful. This is an issue which he has raised in the past and will no doubt raise again. I wholly agree with him, and accept that common sense should be used when dealing with the question of removing fallen trees and structures that have collapsed.

When it comes to the question of what is adequate with regard to fencing, I would not, at this hour, wish to enter into what must be a rather involved question, although the hon. Member may like to know that there has been some anxious discussion in the Department of the Environment about golf courses and the question of fencing to curb those golfers who habitually hook or slice their tee shots. I accept, with the hon. Members for Londonderry and Belfast, East, that article 41, dealing with compulsory stopping-up of accesses, is important and reflects a substantial extension of ours. I can merely say at this moment that we intend to use this power sparingly and that, where it is not possible to get agreement, I will ensure that all cases are referred to the headquarters of the Department and that they reach the Minister's desk.

With those answers to some of the more general points, I commend the order to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Roads (Northern Ireland) Order 1980, which was laid before this House on 25 June, be approved.