HC Deb 05 February 1988 vol 126 cc1331-40

Motion made, and question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Alan Howarth.]

2.39 pm
Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise four local transport safety matters, and I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his attendance today. I shall refer to the matters in the order of the daily movement of the sun—from east to west—rather than attempt to put them in any rank order of priority. To the local people concerned, they all have absolute priority.

I begin with the A6121 road through the pleasant village of Essendine on the Rutland-Lincolnshire border. The first request for a speed limit—any speed limit at all—that I can trace was made by the clerk to the parish meeting in 1976. It was rejected by Leicestershire county council. Six further approaches were made between 1977 and 1985.

I became involved in the matter in 1986. I have made site visits, and I first wrote to my hon. Friend asking for a 40 mph speed limit on 18 December 1986. I had seen heavy traffic go through the village, much of it at high speed. Although the road has houses on both sides of it, and there are several large industrial premises in the village attracting hundreds of vehicles every day, there are no speed limits other than, of course, the 60 mph speed limit that applies to every single carriageway. The Leicestershire police have confirmed to me that they have no objection to a 40 mph speed limit through the village.

To my disappointment, my hon. Friend refused my request by letter on 13 January 1987. I then tabled some parliamentary questions. To my surprise, in an answer to me on 28 January 1987, my hon. Friend confirmed that the vehicle speeds were just within the recommended criterion for a 40 mph speed limit. He still refused to agree to the limit because there had been no recorded injury or accident since 1983. The gloomy conclusion from his reply seems to be that if there had been any accidents the village would have a better case for a speed limit.

My hon. Friend again wrote to me in February 1987, once more saying no. I had another go at him after the general election, when I pointed out by letter that there had been two recent accidents on the road because of excessive vehicle speed through the village, which was accentuated by the difficult camber of the road and the sharp bend near the post office. Yet, again, my hon. Friend refused a 40 mph speed limit, and a further parliamentary question of 10 November was equally unsuccessful.

I ask my hon. Friend to think again about the request. It has the support of the county council, and the police have no objection. I should not have thought that a request for a 40 mph speed limit is unreasonable.

Next, we move to the historic market town of Oakham and the need for a new pedestrian footbridge across the railway line above the Braumton road crossing. Tragically, the matter arose from the sad death of five-year-old Richard Banner, who was killed by a train on the crossing on 26 October 1985. The community was shocked by that dreadful tragedy. I shall not worry my hon. Friend with all the comings and goings of that awful day, which have involved a quite daunting series of meetings, letters, site visits and much heart-searching by British Rail, Leicestershire county council, Rutland district council and myself.

Some of the delays that have taken place in getting anything done since then have been avoidable and deplorable. I simply record that, in absolute desperation, in 1986, I had to write to the chairman of British Rail, and I have had to deliver to Leicester county council one of the strongest protests that I have ever made regarding serious administrative delays in submitting the necessary forms to my hon. Friend's regional office in Nottingham.

Just before Christmas last year, we had a nasty shock at the suggestion that parliamentary legislation will be necessary. From my files, I see that British Rail first mentioned that possibility in a letter dated 29 May 1986. It talked about including the necessary legislative powers in the annual British Railways Bill in November of that year. I am sorry that it did not do so. I hope that my hon. Friend will confirm my understanding of my recent correspondence with him. Leicestershire county council has now complied with the necessary legal requirements to enable the Department of Transport to make an order closing the highway adjacent to the present level crossing and providing a pedestrian footbridge. At one stage, there was an objection, but it has been withdrawn, so there is no need for a public inquiry. Nothing now legally prevents the bridge being built. While private legislation is needed to extinguish highway rights over the railway itself, British Rail can use existing powers to block access to the railway line on each side of the crossing.

I hope that my hon. Friend will confirm that that is so and assure me that his Department will take any steps that are open to it to expedite any necessary parliamentary legislation. There have been too many bureaucratic hiccups over such a much-needed scheme. I trust that it can be seen through to completion over the next few months.

I refer next to the edge of the Vale of Belvoir and the A607 road from Melton Mowbray to Grantham. Once again, we are nearly on the Leicestershire-Lincolnshire border, specifically in the attractive village of Croxton Kerrial.

My file on the speed limit problem dates back to 1978 when the Croxton Kerrial and Branston parish council first asked me to press for a reduction in the speed limit from the existing 40 mph to 30 mph. Since then I have made many protests to Leicestershire county council, the Leicestershire constabulary and the Department of Transport. After some years of pressure, site meetings and discussions, in July 1982 Leicestershire county council decided to support that reduction in the speed limit. Alas, we did not manage to persuade my hon. Friend's predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker), who wrote to me on 8 November and 29 December 1982 rejecting the application. We made a further attempt in 1984. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey wrote to me on 30 April 1984 once again rejecting the application.

In fairness, I should say that the police have never supported the speed limit reduction. Therefore, when I next returned to the issue in September 1987 and held a further site meeting with the parish council, I decided to do a motoring test of my own. I drove from Waltham on the Wolds through Croxton Kerrial, right on to Grantham and back again towards the turn towards Branston, between Croxton Kerrial and Waltham. I did so without exceeding the lawful speed limit of 60 mph in non-built-up areas and I asked myself, as a driver of 20 years' experience, what would be the natural speed for a motorist in such circumstances. There is no doubt in my mind that the natural speed approaching Croxton Kerrial from Waltham on the Wolds, as one comes into the village, ought to be 30 mph. By the time a driver is even a few yards into the village within the 40 mph speed limit, it seems excessive and the hill requires third gear.

I then drove on to Grantham. As soon as one goes under the A 1 and comes to the outskirts of Grantham, one immediately enters a 40 mph speed limit, although the road is much wider and the houses are set well back from it. If a 40 mph speed limit is suitable there, it is far too high a speed for the centre of Croxton Kerrial, which is extremely narrow, with virtually no pavement.

I then drove back to Croxton and certainly felt the need to slow down sharply as I entered the village. While 40 mph might seem a natural speed for the first 50 to 100 yards, it was certainly too fast long before the junction with Middle street. I had no difficulty in coming down naturally to 30 mph, and told the police so. However, I am sorry to say that they remain of the view that the accident record does not justify the reduction.

I must advise my hon. Friend that I do not want any accidents there, which is why I favour reducing the speed limit. That would also help to reduce the danger to pedestrians, for whom the present situation in the centre of the village is quite deplorable. At one point, the footpath outside Hillside farmhouse is as narrow as 2 ft and the suction from passing lorries is most disconcerting, to say the least. I hope that my hon. Friend will review that sympathetically.

Finally, I move north north-west to a large village with a magnificent church, which is also on the edge of the Vale of Belvoir and at the border of three counties, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire. Bottesford, on the A52 trunk road, has long needed a bypass. I have been pressing for one ever since I was first elected to this House in 1974. Everyone was delighted when it was finally decided that the bypass could go ahead, although there was significant local dispute over the actual route and whether it should go north or south of the village. That issue was decided at a public inquiry and I am glad that construction is now proceeding.

However, an issue has arisen that is causing further local concern and on which I must seek the help of my hon. Friend. He knows the problem because I have written to him about it. Indeed, I have sent him my whole file with large numbers of local complaints from the neighbouring village of Muston, and I have asked to see him. Briefly, it concerns the wish of the villagers of Muston for an underpass at the junction with the new bypass and for similar provision at Barkestone lane, especially for the driving of sheep or cattle under the road. I am told that 19 of the 44 pensioners in Muston have no transport, and if the sub post office were to be closed when the lady who runs it retires, they would have to go to Bottesford to get their pensions. Children cycling to school would also be able to use that facility, if it were provided.

When I asked my hon. Friend the cost of such underpasses or cattle creeps, he gave two enormous figures — £260,000 for Barkestone lane and £220,000 for Easthorpe — Muston lane. That was if they had been included in the original design. They would cost considerably more now. I find this hard to believe. It is essential that the bypass proceeds to schedule and no one wants to delay it. Certainly, they would get no support from me, if I thought that anyone wanted to create delay. My hon. Friend the Minister was most helpful in sorting out some difficulties with British Rail, which delayed the announcement of his decision by some months.

I must question these very high cost estimates. I am told by local people that when the Billesdon bypass, which is not in my constituency, was built in 1984, the cost of an underpass was between £18,000 and £20,000. The estimator for a local contractor has suggested this week that the proposed underpasses on the A52 could be constructed for about £125,000 to £150,000. I wish to read a couple of sentences from a letter which I have received from a local parish councillor who is also a builder. His letter, dated 2 February 1988, states: I have been able to have an appointment with Mr. O'Connell, the Engineer for Messrs. Husband & Co. He informs me that the road will be built up approximately one metre the full length of the bypass. Obviously this considerably helps the fall to the Devon on the Bottesford side of the Mill Dam. As he was not aware of the Mill Dam and the difference in the level of the Devon, I took him along and showed him the route that I thought best to obtain the fall and also to the Barkestone Lane crossing, explaining to him that the Winter Beck over the last two or three years has been considerably deepened to take the storm water from the new housing site on Barkestone Lane. On our return to the office, he informed me that he would go further into same as far as levels were concerned and contact me in the near future. … As we see it, it would not be necessary for the purchasing of any more land. As for Barkestone lane, if the Minister still rules out an underpass, I hope that he will consider the question of a 6ft diameter Armco sleeve cattle creep to be used solely for animals. I am told that this could be laid without any necessity to raise the embankment or carry out any drainage work. If it were built during the construction of the road, it might be cheaper than the compensation to which the farmers are entitled.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister has written to me today about this and I hope that he will reconsider his letter in the light of my remarks this afternoon. We are so near to completing a project which is years overdue and desperately needed. There is still time for my hon. Friend to intervene and get this easement for my constituents without in any way delaying the scheme itself.

I have raised four matters of traffic and safety concern to my constituents, all of which are familiar to my hon. Friend the Minister. 1 could, of course, have chosen several others, equally important to the communities involved. I await his reply with interest and hope.

2.52 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Peter Bottomley)

My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Latham) has rightly secured this debate on transport safety matters in his constituency. They are important subjects. I know that he is concerned about road safety and we are frequently in correspondence about it. I congratulate him on his tireless efforts on behalf of his constituents.

Transport safety is the priority of the Department. The issues raised by my hon. Friend relate to road safety on both trunk roads and local authority roads, with a particular emphasis on pedestrian safety. Road safety does not stop there. The recent, successful drink-driving campaign has brought home to drivers, passengers and pedestrians the dangers that they face when drivers use their cars under the influence of alcohol. We are also doing what we can to ensure that the number of accidents is reduced.

The programme for the installation of central reserve safety fencing on dual carriageways will play an important part, as will the closure of motorway emergency crossing points. The recently issued standard for surface skidding resistance introduces a system for monitoring and evaluating the skidding resistance of the trunk road network. Our objective is to maintain skidding resistance at levels appropriate to the accident risk characteristics of various categories of site.

We are also giving a high priority, and encouraging local highway authorities to do the same, to accident investigation and prevention schemes. Such schemes offer considerable potential, usually at relatively low cost, to reduce accidents and improve road safety. The recently published inter-departmental review of road safety underlined the importance of road and vehicle safety research in helping to achieve the Government's target of reducing casualties by one third by the year 2000. In 1987–88, we spent £6 million on research specifically directed to all aspects of road safety. The review proposes that this figure should be further increased in future years.

The work done by the researchers and the pressure from hon. Members, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton, is driving down the British accident rate. Even though, at present, we have the safest roads in the European Community, it requires attention to detail and research. I do the best I can to see how we compare with other countries. In the rural communities, the accident rate is often the same. I find it interesting that Selby in North Yorkshire and Pierre, the capital of South Dakota, which have roughly the same population, also have roughly the same accident rate. The differences tend to exist in the big cities.

Much of the Department's expenditure is on trunk road bypasses and improvements to relieve communities of through traffic and reduce accidents. When it is possible to get a bypass, the accident rate usually drops by 25 per cent. overnight, because there is a reduction in conflict. Over the past six years the Department has made considerable investment in my hon. Friend's constituency. We have seen the completion of major schemes on the A47 at Uppingham, Wardley Hill and Tixover Hill. On the A52, the Muston bends improvement and the recently started Bottesford bypass have also made a contribution. Major repairs have also been completed on the A46 and central reserve safety fencing has also been installed. Other smaller schemes have also been completed. The total cost of all that work is £8.6 million.

My predecessors and I are grateful to my hon. Friend for his long-standing support for the Bottesford bypass on the A52. I pay tribute to his interest, persistence and help in the latter stages in getting the scheme to the construction stage. Work started in November last year and is due to be completed mid-1989. However, the contractor may achieve an early completion date. The 5.5 km bypass will provide great relief to the village of Bottesford. Conditions in the village will be considerably improved and residents will be relieved of the noise and congestion caused by the large numbers of heavy goods vehicles that still run through the centre. The bypass will make the village a safer place in which to live. The reduction in the volume of traffic and traffic delays will reduce the risk of accident for local residents and make it much safer for pedestrians and school children to cross the road.

I appreciate my hon. Friend's concern about the safety of pedestrians crossing the new bypass when it is complete. He has supported the parish council in its request for the provision of underpasses under the new road at Easthorpe-Muston lane, and Barkestone lane. We have given careful consideration to the needs of pedestrians.

My hon. Friend has suggested what the costs might be for the various things he has in mind, but I will, if I may, reply as though he had not said that. However, I will pass on his comments to the staff of the Department. There is no guarantee of success, but I believe that my hon. Friend would like us to take every opportunity to examine whether anything more is possible.

In April 1986, at the public inquiry, the Department gave evidence to show that, over a 10-hour period between 8 am and 6 pm in September 1983, 15 cyclists and 12 pedestrians used Easthorpe/Muston Lane. Since then the numbers may have changed slightly, but the volume of use is considered too low to warrant the provision of an underpass. Barkestone Lane has become a dead end. Although no counts were taken, we would now expect the number of people involved to be even less. However, I note that my hon. Friend referred to sheep as well as to human beings. Nevertheless, few residents are served by Barkestone lane. The inspector found that, on balance, there was little justification for underpasses or footbridges across the bypass.

It is clear that the bypass embankment would have to be raised significantly to cross any underpasses, whether for pedestrian and livestock use or for a cattle creep however, my hon. Friend has said that that is a matter of opinion and judgment. We believe that the cost would be considerable. To provide the two underpasses within the current bypass contract would cost about £500,000. A single footbridge suitable for pedestrians and cyclists would cost about £170,000. That would not include claims for disruption that the contractor would be entitled to submit.

The parish council has suggested the completion of underpasses within the present contract period. It should be recognised that raising the bypass would require more land. Further land would also be required for the approaches to underpasses or bridges. Compulsory purchase orders would probably be necessary to ensure that the land was available at the proper time. The bypass is due to be completed by mid-1989. It would probably not be possible to complete all the necessary statutory arrangements, the design of the structures and their erection, before that date.

Obviously, providing underpasses once the bypass was complete would significantly increase costs. We do not believe that we can justify the considerable expenditure. The need for crossings at both locations was fully discussed at the public inquiry. The inspector did not recommend a bridge or underpass in either case. The Secretaries of State accepted his recommendation.

Agriculture needs have been met by providing accesses and tracks. The number of pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders using or crossing the bypass is low. Gates will be provided on each side of the bypass, so that people may cross. Visibility in both directions will be good, and that will allow people to cross safely. Having said that, I repeat that I will make sure that my hon. Friend's suggestions are looked at again.

The Secretary of State for Transport is responsible for speed limits on trunk roads and his consent is required for all principal road speed limit orders proposed by local highways authorities. It is essential that uniform criteria are applied in all cases, to ensure that speed limits command the respect of motorists nationwide. In the last 30 years, there has been a far greater consistency in speed limit signing. We try to match the speed limit to the condition of the road and, as my hon. Friend said, motorists get an idea of what is a safe speed by the conditions in the village, town or area through which they are driving.

Experience shows that residents sometimes expect too much of speed limits. Simply to make an order and then erect speed limit signs does not automatically ensure that speeds or accident rates are reduced. Similar research on pedestrian crossings shows that, if they are put in with the wrong characteristics, accidents can increase rather than be reduced. The same can apply to speed limits.

To be effective, speed limits have to be set at levels which the average motorist accepts as sensible. Unfortunately, "unreasonably" low speed limits are not respected by all motorists, and their enforcement sets a difficult, if not impossible, task for the police. This engenders distrust of the speed limit system as a whole. Such speed limits can create hazardous conditions for other road users, particularly pedestrians, by lulling them into a false sense of security, seemingly offered by the speed limits sign.

The criteria that are used to decide speed limits include the accident rate, the speed of traffic and the nature of the surrounding development. Speed limits which are imposed because of local concern and unsupported by evidence of accidents do not serve the cause of road safety. Nor is it axiomatic that a speed limit is the best cure when an accident record does exist. Speed limits cannot solve the problem of isolated hazards such as single road junctions or bends.

Speed limits should be lowered only when a positive contribution to road safety can be reasonably expected. A study of types of accidents, their severity, cause and frequency can show whether an existing speed limit suits present conditions or whether it needs to be changed. A survey of traffic speeds will show whether a lower limit will, in the absence of regular enforcement, be likely to be observed sufficiently well for any benefit to result. The degree of a manifest police presence in the area will be a particularly important element in villages.

The A6121 principal road through the village of Essendine is the responsibility of Leicestershire county council as highway authority. The county council submitted a draft proposal requesting approval to carry out consultations on a proposed 40 mph limit. Speed measurements at five locations showed an 85 percentile speed of 46.6 mph, which, as my hon. Friend said, is just within the recommended criterion of 47 mph. At that time, there had been three injury accidents during the previous three years. This was below the recommended criterion. The Department advised the county council that a 40 mph limit would not be appropriate

Although, before I came to this job, I thought that it was crazy to wait until the accident had taken place before considering action, in practice, because of the research work, which shows that there is not an invariable relationship between accidents records and risk, it is better to be guided by them. It may sound harsh, but it is the best general guidance that the Department can adopt.

When Leicestershire county council resubmitted a draft proposal in January 1986, there had been no change in the character of the village or recorded vehicle speeds. Traffic volumes had risen slightly but there had been no recorded injury accidents between January 1983 and January 1986. The county council was again advised against proceeding with a speed limit. Although there had been three accidents since then, only one, I am advised, was inside the length of the proposed speed limit. The accident rate is still well below the recommended criterion. I understand that no further accidents have occurred. I have heard what my hon. Friend has said about being keen to secure further action before there are further accidents, but I need to report the facts as I understand them. We have given careful thought to the need for a speed limit through Essendine. It is clear from the record in recent years that a speed limit would not contribute to road safety. I know that this will be a disappointment, but it really is important for speed limits to be applied only where they are really needed. That way they will remain an effective accident prevention measure.

Similar considerations apply to Croxton Kerrial on the A607 principal road. The 40 mph speed limit was imposed on the built-up length of the village in 1969. Following my hon. Friend's approach in 1984, we promised to consider a proposed reduction to 30 mph. As a result, Leicestershire county council submitted a proposal, which we examined very carefully. It was concluded that conditions on this stretch of road did not justify the lowering of the speed limit. At that time, the facts showed the existing 40 mph speed limit to be realistic and largely self-enforcing. In essence that is a repeat in a slightly different way of the point I made about Essendine.

Vehicle speeds through Croxton Kerrial are generally less than 40 mph, and for the six years before 1984 there had been no accidents resulting in personal injury. At that time the police considered the present limit to be realistic and enforceable but they feared the proposed reduction could give rise to very real difficulties, resulting in the limit being generally disregarded.

I have to tell my hon. Friend that the position has not changed. There have been no reported accidents within the existing speed limit since 1985. We believe that the lowering of the existing speed limit to 30 mph would be inappropriate.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the railway crossing at Braunston road in Oakham. Leicestershire county council's plan to construct a footbridge to carry pedestrians across the British Rail line at Braunston road South street, Oakham, will meet an urgent need to ensure pedestrian safety. I share his concern. This follows the tragic death of a five-year-old boy in 1985 which my hon. Friend described. I understand there have been other potential accidents which could also have ended in tragedy. The county council, as highway authority responsible, has rightly decided to replace this dangerous crossing with a footbridge.

This is a complicated issue because different powers are required for different needs. The crossing is already subject to a road traffic regulation order made in 1979, which prohibits vehicular traffic. Leicestershire county council applied to the Department in September 1987 to stop up the road, using powers under section 209 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971. The council has the necessary planning permission for the footbridge. The highway will have to be closed to construct it because its footings are in the centre of the carriagway. The order, which is the responsibility of the Secretary of State, was published in draft on 18 December. Earlier publication was not possible because details of the proposed footbridge were not received from the highway authority until 9 December.

There is a statutory four-week objection period. Two objections have been received. One, from a private individual, has subsequently been withdrawn. The other is from the East Midlands electricity board which has apparatus in the vicinity. The county council is in discussion with the electricity board. Let us hope that the objection will be withdrawn soon. Only when it is can the order be made. This will take about three weeks from the date of formal notification by the county council that the objection has been withdrawn. Its making — it comes into effect on the same day — will provide the appropriate powers necessary to construct the bridge.

In recent correspondence with my hon. Friend, I mentioned that highway rights may still exist over the level crossing. It is this issue which may have led to some confusion. It may require primary legislation to close the crossing to traffic and pedestrians, which is the responsibility of British Rail. It is for Leicestershire county council to make the appropriate arrangements with British Rail before the scheme is complete.

I should like to draw attention to the considerable investment in new roads that the Government have made since 1979. It aids the economy and moves traffic away from towns and villages. Separating people from traffic is one of the most effective methods of improving road safety. We are achieving this in my hon. Friend's constituency and elsewhere.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes past Three o'clock.