HC Deb 27 March 1985 vol 76 cc606-9
The Minister of State, Department of Transport (Mrs. Lynda Chalker)

I beg to move amendment No. 47, in page 116, line 18, leave out paragraph 10 and insert— 10.—(1) Where the Secretary of State is not satisfied in the case of Greater London or a metropolitan county that all the local authorities in that area have made joint arrangements for the exercise of such of their functions under Part V of the 1984 Act as are necessary to secure the control, management, development and extension of any system of traffic control which relates to two or more of those authorities, he may make an order under this paragraph. (2) An order under this paragraph may transfer to the Secretary of State such functions of the local authorities in question under that Part of that Act as he considers necessary to enable him to secure the control, management, development and extension of that system. (3) The Secretary of State may delegate, with or without restrictions, the exercise of any function transferred to him under this paragraph to the local authority from which it was transferred. (4) Before exercising any function transferred to him under this paragraph, the Secretary of State shall consult any local authority appearing to him to be likely to be affected unless it appears to him that the exercise of the function will only have a temporary effect on the system of traffic control in question; and any local authority from which a function has been so transferred shall consult the Secretary of State before exercising any function under the 1984 Act in any manner which may affect the exercise by the Secretary of State of any function so transferred. (5) The Secretary of State may recover from each local authority from which functions have been transferred by an order under this paragraph such proportion of the expenses reasonably incurred by him in exercising the functions transferred by that order as may be agreed between the local authorities from which functions were so transferred or, in default of agreement, as may be determined by him. (6) A sum recoverable by the Secretary of State under sub-paragraph (5) above may be recovered by him summarily as a civil debt. (7) The Secretary of State shall revoke an order made under this paragraph in relation to a system of traffic control in operation in Greater London or a metropolitan county if at any time he is satisfied that all the local authorities in that area have made joint arrangements for the exercise of such of their functions under Part V of the 1984 Act as are necessary to secure the control, management, development and extension of the system. (8) An order under this paragraph may contain such supplementary and transitional provisions as the Secretary of State thinks necessary or expedient, including provisions for the transfer of property, staff, rights and liabilities and provisions amending any enactment or any instrument made under any enactment.'

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take Government amendment No. 41.

Mrs. Chalker

Amendment No. 47 is necessary because paragraph 10, as drafted, would not be effective if there were no agreement on joint arrangements for urban traffic control. As I said in Committee and to the Select Committee on Science and Technology, it recasts the Secretary of State's reserve power to take over responsibility for urban traffic control systems extending to more than one borough or district. The purpose of the reserve power is to ensure the continuance of the major benefits which these computerised systems for traffic control achieve. Amendment No. 41 is purely technical and consequential on amendment No. 47.

I very much hope that where UTC systems extend to more than one area, the borough and district councils will come to joint arrangements to manage the systems. They could do this in various ways — by a voluntary joint committee, by a lead district or borough method or by employing consultants. However, reserve powers are needed in case there is no such agreement in any areas.

Mr. Snape

These amendments illustrate perfectly the complexity of trying to operate the Bill's provisions for district co-operation and consultation and Government guidance and reserve powers. If they are all as simple as the hon. Lady has just said, why were they not included in our fairly long deliberations in Committee? It is not right glibly to pass over these amendments by saying that they are necessary to tidy up the Bill, because one of the amendments replaces two subparagraphs with eight.

The deeper and longer one looks into the Bill, the more unworkable it appears. It is clear from amendment No. 47 that the Government have little confidence in the districts co-operating on traffic control systems. We have doubts that they will co-operate effectively on any of the matters of common interest identified in the Bill.

In Committee the Minister of State made more than 40 references to the need for consultations co-operation, reserve powers and strategic guidance. Amendment No. 47, by subparagraph (4) introduces yet another requirement for districts to consult the Government, on top of the powers with which the amendment is primarily concerned. Such confusion is symptomatic of the bad drafting of the Bill and its unworkability in regard to highways and traffic. It is further evidence that a county highways authority is the only means of managing roads efficiently and effectively.

The Department said in its paper entitled "Arrangements for Staffing the New Structure" that urban traffic control would be transferred to a residual body. It is absurd to suggest that UTC should be administered by a body with no highway responsibilities. That is another example of the recipe for confusion inherent in the Bill.

The Committee dealt with data research and collection, which, I am sure the hon. Lady agrees, are essential elements of transport planning. It cannot be done rationally at district scale because so much travel crosses district boundaries. Even if individual districts could afford it, there would be wasteful duplication if they independently carried out analysis work on the same data. Similarly, road safety and accident investigation are important and specialised topics for which, the Committee agreed, all county councils had formed small specialist teams. That expertise could not be dissipated between districts without a significant loss in effectiveness. Similar arguments could be applied to the design and maintenance of bridges, the design of roads, street lighting, resource allocation for highway maintenance and to materials testing laboratories.

Time after time in Committee we asked the hon. Lady to come up with expert evidence of the sensibleness—if that is what she thinks it is—of the Bill in regard to those responsibilities. We still eagerly await the favourable view of just one professional body.

The hon. Lady said in Committee that she felt that these matters could be dealt with more efficiently at district level, and indicated that at present they were dealt with by the existing metropolitan county councils. She seemed to suggest that somehow this was inherently inefficient. Even at this late stage, with just a few minutes to go before the guillotine descends and yet another unworkable clause appears on the statute book, the hon. Lady should produce some evidence to show that this is a simplification which will make traffic control more workable than at present. We have had considerable debate on these matters in Committee and elsewhere, and so far the hon. Lady has produced no such evidence. She should now produce evidence to show that what is proposed in the amendments is better than what was proposed in the Bill. We still await an explanation as to why it was necessary, at this late hour, to multiply two sub paragraphs by four to produce this tidying-up amendment. The onus of proof lies with the Government, and so far it has been singularly lacking.

Mr. Simon Hughes

The amendment epitomises the Government's ludicrous approach to these matters. It is suggested that if the authorities which are left alone to deal with traffic management cannot agree, the Government under subparagraph (2) will take unto themselves the powers which under subparagraph (3) they will delegate back with or without restrictions. On the way round the circuit they will have allocated the bills between the authorities which started off with the responsibility.

This is another example which argues blatantly for the need for strategic authorities, because at the end of the day such an authority will have the power to say, "I am sorry, but we must impose this over the whole area governed by the county or metropolitan county because we must have consistency." Traffic management does not stop at a borough boundary.

This paraphernalia will cost something, add to delay and arrogate to the Secretary of State or the Minister further powers centrally. It is just the sort of thing which the Government have been forced to add to the Bill because they know that it requires greater centralisation to work. It is unlikely to be more satisfactory than the present system and merely shows the bureaucratic tangle into which the Government have, yet again, got themselves.

Mr. Snape

It seems that we shall get no answers, even at this late hour. The hon. Lady has three minutes in which to reply, and I am perfectly prepared to sit down so that she can do so.

In addition to the points made by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), there is the inevitable—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to make another speech, he must have the leave of the House.

Mr. Snape

I did not think that I would need the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Lady still shows no signs of replying, although she still has time to do so.

Perhaps I can point out to the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey that subparagraph (8) is the inevitable catch-all which lies behind every clause in the Bill—that anything we have forgotten the Secretary of State can do anyway, because that is how he drafted it. I hope that in the two minutes available to her the hon. Lady will provide some answers.

Mrs. Chalker

In the minute or so left to me I wish to say just three things about the amendment. First, we believe that it is important to keep the expertise together. Secondly, I believe that in different metropolitan areas and in some London boroughs it may be possible to keep these expert teams together without recourse to the reserve powers. I should, however, be failing in what I believe is an important aspect of traffic management if I did not take reserve powers in the Bill in case there is a breakdown, not necessarily immediately after abolition, but perhaps some years hence.

I am always prepared to do something that will safeguard the speedy movement of traffic in London and the metropolitan areas. That is why the reserve powers are there—not to be used in the first instance, but to ensure that we have the best technology available, which was developed by the Transport and Road Research Laboratory. I recommend SCOOT—the split cycle and offset optimisation technique — to any district in this country and especially abroad where it will sell well.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 48, in page 117, line 8, at end insert—

  1. 'Commencement 75 words
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