§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Maude.]9.49 pm
§ Mr. Colin Shepherd (Hertford)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for coming to reply to the debate. These may be almost the last moments of this Parliament, but the problem that I wish to explore will not go away because there is a change of one Parliament for another. It relates very much to the way in which the care and maintenance of highways is dealt with as a consequence of the Highways Act 1980 and earlier legislation.
The particular problem has been created by the arrangements contained in the 1980 Act, whereby district councils can exercise a right to do maintenance of unclassified roads in their territory. On that basis, a district council, in seeking to do its best, is not unnaturally perhaps inclined to develop a champagne taste but with only a beer income to satisfy it. Whereas we would all like authorities to have a champagne income, the problem of where it comes from cannot be put to one side. Authorities have to work within the constraints of what the rates will stand and what is granted by central Government from tax receipts.
In the present system, even though at professional officer-to-officer level there is co-operation, when there is a difference in political control, that co-operation may be undermined or lost by party politicking. That is highly unsatisfactory and cannot be good for the consumer. Similarly, the mechanism allowed for in schedule 7 to the Act is in theory a reasonable way of settling any dispute, but only on a professional level. An officer-to-officer dispute can reasonably be settled by the Secretary of State, acting in the role of professional arbiter rather than as a political person. A comparison can be made with the Secretary of State for the Environment acting in the same capacity over planning appeals.
When the Secretary of State wears a party hat different from that of one of the parties to the dispute, a reasonable professional judgment may be rejected on a purely political basis. Of course, the rejection would come from the party that felt it had been done down. All this can be viewed as nothing but the normal cut and thrust of party politics, but at the bottom of it the consumer cannot and must not be forgotten.
I have in mind the elderly lady lying in the orthopaedic ward, having broken a hip by tripping over a displaced paving slab. She finds no consolation in the thought that it is normal party politicking or even in the possibility of financial compensation; she feels only acute frustration when told by the district council and the county council that it is the fault of the other. That unfortunate person is justified in her anger. She just wants someone to whom to complain and who will carry the can.
My hon. Friend will be aware that the problem exists in my part of the country between Hereford city council — a district council — and Hereford and Worcester county council. Hereford exercised its right in 1974 — when both councils were formed — and ever since to carry out its own maintenance on unclassified roads and pavements within the city boundaries. I use this case as an example to underline my unhappiness with the present position and the way it can be exploited for the wrong 392 reasons. My concern is not just that the roads and pavements of Hereford should be safe for constituents who walk, ride bicycles and drive motor cars—I do all three —but also that there should be full value for money. I have yet to meet a constituent who feels that he pays too little in rates.
There should also be accountability. The present system, as it is capable of being used when there is a difference of political control between the various bodies, does not provide that accountability. In Hereford, for example, no one can claim that the city council has been relatively disadvantaged in respect of similar authorities, such as Worcester, Kidderminster, Stourport, Bromsgrove and Redditch. Every year, for the past six years, Hereford has been, and is now, top of that league in terms of pounds per kilometre of unclassified roads to maintain. In 1986–87, the Wyre Forest estimate was £2,113 per kilometre, Bromsgrove £2,266, Redditch £1,814, with Hereford in the lead at £2,527.
If I read correctly the figures from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, they compare with the average for maintenance of other roads in the county—the category given by CIPFA is "other county roads"—of £1,427 per kilometre. It is also worth noting that Hereford and Worcester have one of the highest figures per kilometre per capita of roads to maintain in the country.
From my discussions with city and county professional officers, it would appear that the degree of mutual understanding and co-operation has been improving steadily of late, and I welcome that. If it will help to achieve the best value for money, so much the better. There appears to be a consensus that the backlog of problems is being reduced. I think that that comes about as a consequence of that co-operation, and it is encouraging. However, all of us who live or work around Hereford know that there are still areas where the pavements and roads are quite deplorable. Some have not been properly maintained in living memory.
On the political side, the position is different. Surely it is wrong for there to be a situation whereby a district council can demand expenditure without having to worry about the consequences of raising it. The expectations of electors are raised for political expediency, with local politicians secure in the knowledge that electorally they will not have to bear the brunt of the increased taxation if they succeed, and that they can pass on the blame if they fail. That is a marvellous position for them, but I am sure that it is unacceptable.
If there is to be accountability, and hence value, surely the lines of responsibility should be cleared away to obviate that problem. Either the county council should do the lot, on the basis that it is the rate precepting authority for that function, or the responsibility for action and funding should be passed over lock, stock and barrel to the district council. There should not be this curious position whereby we can have the one without the other.
In the former case, the professionals of the county councils would argue that they can deploy a level of expertise and scale of approach to the problem that is not available to district councils and that, because district council officers perforce must carry out many other functions as well, they cannot carry the specific expertise to achieve the most effective utilisation of financial resources.
393 In the latter case, the district council professionals would argue that there is local accountability and an improved opportunity for co-ordination with other district council responsibilities. They would argue that not having that function would jeopardise the viability of their technical service organisations and that the lines of communication for the public would be the shortest.
Both of those arguments have their attractions. However, the present arrangements seem to lead to the worst of all worlds, especially when one moves out of the realm of the professional and into the political.
My hon. Friend will have the vast experience of the Department of Transport at his fingertips and will have access to a far wider scope of examples and experience than I have. The problem is exercising both the Association of County Councils and the Association of District Councils. I should be grateful for any advice or evidence that my hon. Friend can give me that would point to a size of district council above which perhaps the economies of scale and the facility and expertise of local knowledge and organisations would come together in harmony and achieve palpable value for money without giving rise to this split personality.
I also believe that the Audit Commission is doing a special study on the matter. Can my hon. Friend tell the House when he expects it to publish its findings?
§ It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without question put.
§ Motion made, and Question again proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Maude.]
The Audit Commission report will give valuable pointers as to how the problems may be resolved and, indeed, when we may expect to know positively whether or not we are getting full value for money.
As I said earlier, I am anxious that there should be full visible accountability and full auditable value, and the sooner the better. We are not necessarily best served by the present arrangements.
§ 10.1 pm
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Peter Bottomley)
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd) for raising this issue. I wish to pay more than the usual tribute to him, because he has raised an issue which is not the common currency of Parliament, but which, as he put his finger on it, raises the questions of effectiveness and visible accountability.
My hon. Friend has not gone in for press-release politics. For all I know, he may not have put out a press release on this in the past. Instead, he has taken the matter up with the city and county officers and tried to bring them together; with the Audit Commission and put forward his own view for its consideration; in parliamentary questions; and in letters to the Department of Transport. No constituency could ask its Member to do more on this type of issue, which may not have the glamour of wet-fish politics — hitting one's opponent over the head with a wet fish just to wait for him to hit back. He has raised an issue which, sadly, has not attracted the attention of the alliance parties tonight and he has made the case for clearing up what appears to be unclear responsibility over the function and effectiveness of spending, and who should determine the outcome of a dispute between two authorities.
394 I intend to be fairly serious and detailed, because this debate will be of interest to county councils and district councils throughout the country. We recognise that the condition of roads and pavements is always a matter of great local concern and that there has been particular distress about the state of pavements in Hereford Maintenance of local roads is for local authorities, but we in the Government attach high priority to maintenance and have given clear signals about priorities.
Our determination that the county council had not acted unreasonably did not imply any judgment about the state of the roads in Hereford or the efficiency with which the city council is carrying out their maintenance. That is primarily a matter for the city council and the county council to examine. I have no other powers to intervene or to terminate a district council's powers to maintain urban unclassified roads. I hope that Hereford city council and the county council will continue to make every effort to accommodate maintenance needs and resources. Both the city council and county council exist to serve the people.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is the highway authority for motorways and all-purpose trunk roads. County councils act as his agents in non-metropolitan areas. Local authorities are responsible for the rest of the road network. Outside the metropolitan areas the county council is the highway authority for local roads. The county council may make arrangements under section 101 of the Local Government Act 1972 for a district council to act as its agent in respect of some or all its highway functions. Alternatively, district councils can carry out certain duties by claiming the right to maintain footpaths, bridleways and urban unclassified roads in its area under section 42 of the Highways Act 1980. I confirm my hon. Friend's explanation of the position. In such cases the county council remains the highway authority and is responsible for funding the maintenance work that is carried out by a district council. The county council may withhold payment until it is satisfied that the works are properly executed.
About two-thirds of the 333 district councils in England and Wales possess a section 101 agency for at least some highway functions, but arrangements vary greatly. In general, agents deal with the cyclic and routine tasks rather that with the major capital works. In contrast, only about 12 district councils have claimed the right under section 42 to maintain minor local roads. I hope my hon. Friend will understand that I shall not be able to give him the information on how that number varies, because only a small number of councils use section 42.
A district council which is claiming section 42 maintenance powers is required to submit a detailed estimate of costs to the county council each year. Under schedule 7 to the Highways Act 1980, the county council must not unreasonably withhold approval of the estimate. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has powers under section 7 to determine whether approval of a district council's maintenance estimate has been unreasonably withheld by a county council. He may also determine whether a particular road falls within the relevant powers, whether any maintenance works have been properly executed, and the liability of a county council to make a payment to a district council.
A highway authority is responsible for determining maintenance standards and, where work is delegated to agents, ensuring that standards are complied with and that 395 adequate funds are provided. I think that that makes it plain that there is unlikely to be a similar dispute when there is an agency agreement. The responsibility is tied to one pair of hands, and although people look to their agents for advice and professionalism the responsibility lies with one authority. District councils which are claiming section 42 maintenance powers are responsible for deciding standards, subject to funds being made available by the county council as the highway authority. The House will understand how Hereford city council and Hereford county council have fallen into disagreement in the past.
Highway maintenance standards should reflect a range of factors, including engineering judgment, availability of resources and value for money. Standards for routine repairs for national roads, for which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is the highway authority, are laid down in the Department's code of practice for routine maintenance. Standards for local roads are a matter for local highway authorities.
In 1983 the local authority associations published a code of good practice for highway maintenance. That recommended standards and warning levels, while acknowledging the need for flexibility to meet local conditions. The associations are currently reviewing their code, and the relationship between the local authorities' and the Department's code is being jointly considered.
We have continued to give high priority to maintaining the local road network. Public expenditure provision has been generous in recent years, with a 13 per cent. increase in 1987–88, most of which feeds into authorities' grant-related expenditure. There was a 15 per cent. increase in 1986–87, and earlier years' increases were well above inflation.
Local authorities must determine their own spending priorities. We hope that they will act in accordance with the increased provision and give highway maintenance high priority. The national increase in provision should enable authorities to halt the trend of deterioration that was revealed by the recent national road maintenance condition surveys. It should also allow authorities to start work on bridges that are overdue for repair or in need of upgrading.
The position in Hereford and Worcester, as I do not have to explain to my hon. Friend, is that the county council is the highway authority. It directly maintains most of the classified roads and all local roads outside the principal urban areas.
The county council has an agency with the city of Worcester covering all classes of county roads and agencies with three other district councils for the maintenance of unclassifed urban roads. Hereford city council declined a formal agency agreement. Instead, it claimed the right, under section 42 of the Highways Act, 1980 to maintain urban unclassified roads.
The Government have increased Hereford and Worcester county council's grant-related expenditure for highway maintenance by 30 per cent. between 1985–86 and 1987–88. Spending priorities are a matter for the authority to decide. In recent years the county council has chosen to spend below grant-related expenditure.
Part of the county council's highway maintenance expenditure is allocated to Hereford city council for the maintenance of its urban unclassified roads. I understand 396 that there was a significant increase in the funds made available between 1985–86 and 1986–87. However, I am aware that the allocations were substantially lower than the estimates for those years submitted by Hereford city council. I regret that I do not have the figures for 1986–87.
Hereford city council has consistently claimed that the funding provided by the county council for unclassified roads in the city is markedly insufficient. As my hon. Friend said, the failure on the part of both sides to agree resulted in the city council asking my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to determine whether the county council had unreasonably withheld approval of the city council's maintenance estimates for 1985–86 and 1986–87.
The city council argued that once it had claimed the right to maintain its urban unclassified roads the county council was under an obligation to meet the reasonable costs, irrespective of the county's spending plans. It said that "reasonableness" should be judged in the context of the condition of the city's roads. The city council argued that its roads were heavily trafficked and in an unacceptable condition.
In response, the county council argued that the city council was adopting standards that were unachievable in the present economic climate. The county council said that it had set its standards in the context of the national codes of practice and that Hereford city had consistently received the highest allocation per kilometre, or per mile if that is an appropriate standard for my hon. Friend, of all districts in the county. Most important, the county did not accept that the city council was failing in its statutory duty to maintain the highway.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State concluded that the county council had had regard to the relevant considerations and had not acted unreasonably. He took the view that the county council, as highway authority and provider of funds, could reasonably weigh maintenance standards and priorities against the available finance and, if necessary, reduce the city council's estimate in the light of that.
I appreciate that the points I have made concerning our determination that the county council had not acted unreasonably does not imply a judgment about the state of the roads in Hereford. My hon. Friend has rightly concentrated attention on questioning how one can have visible accountability and determine that the system is effective and that roads are effectively maintained. The Hereford case raises broader issues of the optimum arrangements for the maintenance of local roads. My right hon. Friend and I have both said that the Audit Commission is currently undertaking a special study of highway maintenance including agency and section 42 arrangements. The commission expects to publish its interim report dealing with this matter in late summer. That answers one of my hon. Friend's questions.
I am certain that the commission's findings will help local authorities and their auditors to examine and improve their efficiency. I know that many hon. Members would like to pay tribute to the work of the Audit Commission on this and other matters. The solicitor who recently transferred from the borough of Greenwich to the Audit Commission will add to its professionalism. The commission has a tradition of recruiting people who know their job and can work with local authorities to produce useful reports.
397 I look forward to receiving the commission's report. The Government will consider the role of district councils with regard to highway maintenance as a result of that report. I believe that my hon. Friend would agree that it is premature to reach any conclusions on agency and section 42 powers while the Audit Commission study is still under way.
I hope that my answer in this relatively short debate is helpful. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising a matter that is clearly of concern at least to the 12 district councils that use section 42 powers. I suspect that it will also be of interest to the two thirds of the district councils which have an agency role with the local county council highway authority. It is the kind of matter that is best dealt with by a Member of Parliament who is responsible for a constituency rather then a multi-Member system, whereby people may not bother to pick up points of such a nature.
I hope that you will not judge me out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I turn my remarks rather more to you. I came to the House in 1975 when you had already served for 11 years. It will be accepted on both sides of the House that it has been an honour to serve with you as a colleague, as a Minister and as Deputy Speaker. There are relatively few countries in which someone can move from being a teacher to being an Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science, as you did, followed by years of distinguished service in the Department of the Environment.
Speaking for hon. Members who sit below the Gangway on the Front Benches, as well as for those who 398 sit on ministerial Benches and on the Opposition Front Bench, may I say that your presence in the Chair has led to rather better behaviour, rather better debates and a great deal more affection for the occupant of the Chair than we could say has occurred in years past, although I do not wish to cast any reflection on Mr. Speaker or your fellow Deputy Speakers. You are held in great affection, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by the leaders of all parties, There are many who cannot be here this evening but who would like to join me in wishing you a happy retirement and the hope that your memories of this place will be as good as our memories of you.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)
I thank the Minister for his kind remarks. It has been a great privilege and honour to serve the House. I have been particularly fortunate in having been a Minister and then a Deputy Speaker. As Deputy Speaker, I have enjoyed my service in the House. I have listened to a great number of speeches to which I would not otherwise have listened. It has been interesting. It is a great honour to sit in the Chair. Labels no longer matter. Every right hon. and hon. Member is an individual and personality. This is a moving occasion. I am grateful for what the Minister said. I am privileged to have served this honourable House. I have grown more proud of the House as the years have gone by.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes past Ten o'clock.