HC Deb 20 June 1984 vol 62 cc323-9
Mr. Craigen

I beg to move amendment No. 22, in page 4, line 38, after 'shall', insert 'subject to subsection (4A) below'.

The Chairman

With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 23, in clause 3, page 5, line 18, at end insert— '(4A) The Secretary of State shall ensure that advances under this section defray the increased local roads authority expenditure attributable to the passing of this Act.'

Mr. Craigen

The purpose of the amendment is to get a guarantee from the Minister that the additional costs that will fall on local authorities in Scotland as a result of this consolidation measure will be met from central Government and that there will be some recompense to the local authorities for the new responsibilities that they are taking on.

Some of the gloss of this consolidation measure has worn off for me. I am mindful of the strictures of my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Lambie) on Second Reading, when he referred to the problems that had subsequently arisen from the Civic Government (Scotland) Act. Mercifully, I was not a member of the Committee that considered that legislation but I wonder how many problems involving costs to local authorities are likely to arise from the Bill.

The introduction to the Bill makes it clear that there are a number of innovatory clauses. We are not talking only about consolidation. I hope that the Minister will take on board my advice that the next time one of his top advisers suggests that there should be a consolidation measure he should either throttle him or send him to St. Kilda to undertake research into extinct populations. I think that this consolidation measure will cause road authorities in Scotland to incur a fair amount of extra cost.

When the Secretary of State issued earlier in the year his outline of expenditure on roads in Scotland in the foreseeable future it became evident that there will be even less money available for the maintenance and repair of our roads. That caused a great deal of concern to many people. Many of our secondary roads are in disrepair and a recent parliamentary answer told us that structural repairs are being carried out to 13 miles of motorway and five miles of hard shoulder, which falls within the responsibility of the Scottish Office. That is out of a total of 147 miles of motorway in Scotland, including the 15 miles of local authority motorway in the Strathclyde region.

Bearing in mind the costs that are arising for local authorities, it is important that the Government should accept the principle that is set out in the amendment. I am glad to see that the Minister with responsibilities for health in Scotland, the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. MacKay), is in the Chamber. I was interested to read that, following a series of fatal accidents in Strathclyde, the region spent about £600,000 in Argyll on replacing suspect timber barriers with barriers of a more robust design. That is a substantial sum to be incurred in Argyll, albeit for the important purpose of improving road safety, which I am sure we all support. I hope that the Minister, in his other capacity, will speak less forcefully about the need for cutting public expenditure when he knows of the amount of money that his own area is incurring in making improvements to road safety.

Shortly after Second Reading in the Scottish Grand Committee, I received a letter from the Strathclyde regional council on a constituency matter, the condition of the Castle Bay street carriageway. I was concerned about the condition of the road and the council's reply was interesting. The assistant divisional engineer said: An inspection of this has now been made and I agree with the comments made. However, I would state that other priorities have precluded me from including this section of street in my present resurfacing programme. A supplementary programme may be possible even at this stage in the financial year and consideration will be given to the inclusion of Castle Bay Street in the event of this occurring. Any hon. Member could refer to the condition of the streets in his or her constituency.

Mr. Maxton

I am delighted to be able to make these comments from this seat in the Chamber, which is sometimes occupied by Liberal Members who represent constituencies in the Border region. I am certain that there are many roads in the Border region that are in a state of disrepair. I am sure that the constituents of Liberal Members who represent constituencies in the Border region would have been happy to see them in their places and to hear them advancing arguments on their behalf. I am sure, too, that their constituents would like to see their roads repaired. The Committee will be aware that neither of the two alliance Members who represent the Border region are present to make those representations.

Sir Hector Monro

Had members of the Liberal party been present, they might well have welcomed the great improvement to the A7 that links the border region to the M6. The Government have invested £5 million and have provided an excellent bypass at Canonbie. These are improvements that the Liberal party should be welcoming.

Mr. Craigen

Yes, Mr. Walker, I read the Scottish Office press handout about the improved bypass. I am pleased that my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) and for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) are occupying the Liberal Benches. No doubt the two hon. Members who represent the Borders are attending the Scottish Assembly.

I am concerned about the inadequacy of the resources for maintenance and repair, which most hon. Members would agree is a matter of great concern to many of their constituents. In roads authorities' budgets secondary roads are often given much lower priority in terms of repairs, and the deterioration is beginning to show.

5.30 pm
Mrs. Anna McCurley (Renfrew, West and Inverclyde)

Speaking as someone who has taken part in local government, I can claim to have some knowledge of what actually happens with road repairs. In some regional authorities the system resembles a job creation scheme. Instead of doing the necessary repair properly, they patch the road once and, when the repair fails, they patch it again. In some areas of Glasgow such as Camphill and Pollokshaws, which were in my division, I have known cases where patches were repaired two, three or four times before the road was properly made up. I cannot think of a more inefficient and wasteful way of repairing roads.

Mr. Craigen

The hon. Member for Renfrew, West and Inverclyde (Mrs. McCurley) made a related point on Second Reading, and somebody subsequently wrote to me about her remarks and pointed out that, with limited resources, many authorities were forced to adopt the patching approach. I agree that such matters should be better managed, but, when one adopts the accountant's approach to everything, one sometimes squeezes out good management and common sense.

Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, Shettleston)

In many cases the repairs are carried out by private contractors, not by the works department of the local authority. Usually, when additional costs are incurred, it is because the private contractor asks for more money for work which was unforeseen when the contractor took on the job.

Mr. Craigen

My hon. Friend has made a good point. The extent to which public authorities give a considerable amount of business and employment by way of public contracts is often overlooked.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

It is not incumbent upon the local authority to do so. Renovations and repairs can be kept exclusively to the public works department so that the department can do that work in the summer and be available for road clearance in the winter.

Mr. Craigen

I am well aware of that, having served on a Statutory Instrument Standing Committee with the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker)—a not uncommon experience in this Session, or ordeal, as one of my hon. Friends has naughtily suggested sotto voce.

These matters must be taken seriously because there has been a sizeable cut in the budget of most local authorities for maintenance and repair. That is why I have moved the amendment.

Mr. Home Robertson

I support the amendment, which is constructive and helpful. I welcome the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) to our deliberations. I am sure that last week he did not imagine that he would be sitting here now listening to debates on Scottish affairs. I also welcome the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Mr. Johnston) who, I suspect, hoped that he would not be here.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Craigen) is quite right. The Secretary of State asks Parliament to give local authorities more and more duties, rights and powers but he is remarkably reticent about providing the wherewithal which they need to fulfil those functions. Scattered through the Bill there are provisions that could involve local authorities in additional expenditure. For instance, clause 13(7) states: A local roads authority may, if they think fit, pay the whole or any part of any expenditure incurred by a person in making up or maintaining a private road. Clause 14 provides for Emergency work in relation to private roads. Clause 15 again deals with private roads, and I could turn to any other part of the Bill and find that local authorities have been given power to undertake additional works, or given additional responsibilities. If Parliament expects — even by implication — local authorities to undertake such work, we should make the necessary funds available.

Mr. Maxton

Although I am getting rather worried about speaking from this Bench, I rise to support my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson).

Clause 1, which we have passed, makes it clear that we are imposing—or continuing to impose—a duty upon local authorities to manage and maintain all … roads in their area except the trunk roads, which are maintained by the Secretary of State for Scotland. There is no "may be" about it. There is no give and take. The local authority is not empowered to maintain the roads if it so wishes. The clause is specific. It states that the local authority shall manage and maintain … roads in their area". The word used is "shall".

The local authorities are being continually harangued by the Government and told to cut expenditure in line with some economic policy which is now so debased that it no longer has any meaning, yet at the same time the Government continue to impose duties upon the local authorities. I am not referring only to clause 1. As we consider the Bill, we shall see more and more instances of what local authorities shall and shall not do, and many of the clauses will involve local authorities in extra expenditure. We should ensure that they have enough money to cover any roads expenditure which they have to undertake. If we do not, we are not justified in imposing the duties upon them.

The hon. Member for Renfrew, West and Inverclyde (Mrs. McCurley) made a point about the piecemeal repair of roads. What she is complaining about is made worse by the failure to provide, and to secure for a number of years, proper financing for road repairs. Local authorities are often uncertain how much money they will have available to spend on road repairs. It is almost impossible for them to plan their road repair programmes for five years, which is what they ought to do, because they do not know how much money the Government will allow them to have. If they try to spend more on road repairs, the Government will probably rate-cap them. The piecemeal nature of maintenance and repair is often due to a lack of planning, which in turn is due to local government not knowing what its expenditure will be.

Mrs. McCurley

I think that the hon. Gentleman has got it the wrong way round. Local authorities can estimate how much they will require for road repairs. If they do not have the experience to do that, they should not have the job. It is up to them to present the Government with a case.

Mr. Maxton

That is precisely my point. They know how to estimate. They employ many skilled staff so they can plan ahead, but when they put those estimates to the Government with the rest of their budget for road repairs or a bypass, which is of more concern to Conservative Members, who tend to represent rural constituencies, the Government say, "Yes, we think you might have a case, but in view of Government economic policy we are determined to cut public expenditure so we shall not allow you the money." Local authorities then find that they can do only a little here and a little there. They do not work the programme out properly with various other organisations, but that is a matter with which we shall deal later. If the Government impose duties on local authorities, the local authorities must be given the money to enable them to do the work properly.

I am glad to see the Minister asking his new Parliamentary Private Secretary to go to the civil servants' Box for advice. The Conservative party in Scotland has reached a sorry pass when it has to use another Minister to act as a Parliamentary Private Secretary.

Mr. David Marshall

They do not have enough Scottish Members of Parliament.

Mr. Maxton

My hon. Friend is right. The Conservatives do not have enough Scottish Members to man their Benches properly, so they must use the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in such a lowly position. I have made my point, and perhaps the Minister now has the necessary answers.

Mr. Allan Stewart

I shall deal, first, with the general point about expenditure by roads authorities on maintenance and, secondly, with amendment No. 22.

It might assist hon. Members if I give the figures for such expenditure. In 1978–79 it was £90 million, in 1982–83 it was £141 million, and the estimate for 1984–85 is £167 million. No one denies that resources are limited, but those figures show a substantial level of overall expenditure on road maintenance. Priorities within roads authorities' areas are a matter for them.

Amendment No. 22 addresses the effect of the Bill on local authority expenditure. The financial memorandum makes it clear that no increase in public sector manpower is expected as a result of the Bill. Local authorities are responsible for maintaining more than 47,000 miles of public roads, so the additional few miles of newly constructed or made up to standard private roads should have a negligible impact, as most of them could be adopted under existing statutory powers.

It is worth observing that the standard of a road in a housing development, for example, and liability for its maintenance can be among the factors that are taken into account by assessors when arriving at rateable value. It is therefore possible that making up an adoption could result in increased rate income for the local roads authority.

5.45 pm

Some of the Bill's provisions will assist on expenditure. The road-borne provisions, for example, have been welcomed by local authorities, which have said that those provisions will save them money. Although local authorities will incur some extra expenditure on road lighting that is taken over from district councils, it will be more than offset by the new provision which allows conditions to be attached to the consent—under clause 20—to build a new road. By those means, local roads authorities will be able to require a housing developer to provide lighting as well as roads, thus saving the capital cost of providing a lighting system. The Bill's effects will therefore be small and will not all point in the same direction.

On amendment No. 22, I am sure that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Craigen) agrees that neither the Government nor the Confederation of Scottish Local Authorities favour specific grants for current expenditure purposes. I understand that the hon. Gentleman was not contradicting that principle, but wanted a reassurance on expenditure. We do not think that there will be any significant increase in expenditure as a result of the Bill, but, in so far as any marginal increase in roads authorities expenditure arises as a result of the Bill, it will be taken into account in future rate support grant settlements.

Mr. Craigen

I should like to put on record that the Minister has said that he does not envisage there being any additional manpower requirements. Some local authorities fear that such requirements will be shunted on to them when operating the provisions in the Bill. I want the Minister to spell the matter out. We are drifting towards rate capping as additional costs incurred by local authorities might exceed the guidelines that have been set down by the Scottish Office in its wisdom.

If the Minister is saying that there will be little or no extra cost, that is one thing; but I should like an undertaking from him to the effect that he will look sympathetically on local authorities which are able to convince him or to argue—the two are not the same—that they have incurred extra costs as a result of the innovatory elements of the Bill.

Mr. Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber)

The Minister has said that the Government and COSLA oppose special grants. In the past, the Government have tended to blame COSLA alone, but the Minister has now clearly said that the Government oppose such grants. Do I gather from what the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. C:raigen) said that he favours them?

Mr. Craigen

The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Mr. Johnston) must not put words into my mouth. The purpose of the amendment was to ensure that local authorities would be recompensed by central Government for the costs which we felt they would incur as a result of the innovatory clauses in the consolidation Bill. The rate support grant, as it has been operating, was originally intended as a block grant, and it was left to local authorities to exercise certain powers. That gave them flexibility and seemed sensible.

However, the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber will be aware that the Rating and Valuation (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill and its predecessor legislation have created a situation in which the Government, by creating mandatory guidelines in place of the original voluntary guidelines, are, in effect, creating specific grants. In other words, the rate support grant, because it is becoming so rigidly tied to the guidelines, is, in effect, a whole series of specific grants.

The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber has not had the treat that I have had this Session of hours and hours in Committee on the Rating and Valuation (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill, so I have heard Scottish Ministers say that no extra cost will be incurred. However, when one looks at the small print and questions local authorities, one soon discovers that there will be extra costs.

I want the Minister to make it perfectly clear that when local authorities find themselves caught up in the snare of rate capping the Government will take into account any extra costs that they can prove arose directly from the passage of this legislation.

Mr. Allan Stewart

I can give the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Craigen) the assurance that we do not envisage that the Bill will increase public service manpower, that we expect the changes in expenditure to be marginal, and that we have had no representations from local authorities to the effect that they believe that the Bill will result in significant expenditure being incurred. If they were to make such representations in future discussions with the Government, we should take full account of that. As I said, if there were marginal increases in their expenditure as a result of the Bill, that would be taken into account in future rate support grant settlements.

Mr. Johnston

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Craigen) said that, speaking generally, rate support grant was an aggregate of a series of specific grants. The Minister said that he was against specific grants but that, should special circumstances arise, the Government—being benign and responsive to the public and all that twaddle—would make a specific grant. The Minister said that the Government were against specific grants. I am becoming confused. Will the Minister please elucidate further?

Mr. Stewart

I hope that I shall be able to reassure the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Mr. Johnston). The point of general principle is that, on balance, the local authorities and ourselves believe that specific grants should be adopted only for very good reasons and that, in general terms, it is better to give an overall rate support grant; and within that overall total the local authority has discretion.

Mr. Bill Walker

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the specific grants he has in mind would relate to situations such as ghastly winters, when local authorities incur special extra costs because of the expense involved in keeping roads clear of snow and ice?

Mr. Stewart

The Government give specific grants for current expenditure to local authorities, but only, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) points out, in exceptional circumstances. I am saying not that we would envisage giving a specific grant related to the enactment of this Bill, but that, if there were marginal increases in local roads authorities' expenditure as a result of the Bill, that would be taken into account in the general rate support grant settlement.

Amendment negatived.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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