HC Deb 20 February 1990 vol 167 cc789-91

4.5 pm

Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law relating to the procedures whereby householders and frontagers may seek the making up and adoption of a road by a local authority; and for connected purposes. I know how anxious the House is to debate the Royal Shakespeare Company, because nothing can be nearer to the Labour party's manifesto than "A Midsummer Night"s Dream". However, I shall limit my remarks to 10 minutes.

The Bill is aimed at bringing up to date and simplifying the law on private or unadopted streets. It is a tangled area of the law and one which causes a great many problems and misunderstandings. Those familiar with and involved in highway law are only too well aware that private streets often mean trouble. The perception of the public—the home-owners and frontagers—is that, under the existing rating system which is being phased out with the introduction of the community charge in five weeks' time, owners of properties in private streets usually pay lower rates, and the property prices are often lower than for surrounding dwellings, fronting adopted roads.

What so many of those home-owners often fail to understand are the possible consequences of private street status, and many get a nasty shock when they find that they are liable for accidents, and that they have to make up the road surface, and dig up and re-lay the road for water, gas and electricity, often completely at their own expense.

At first sight, to many people the price differential, and in the past the small differential in the rates bill, have seemed thoroughly attractive in the short term. However, in the long term, the liabilities accompanying a private highway far outweigh the small benefits passed on by the rating authority for the lack of a paved footpath, a highway or street lighting. Some people prefer the quiet life of an unadopted road. My Bill contains no element of compulsion.

Much of the present legislation dates back to the 19th century, and although some new developments involve private streets, those generally cause relatively few problems. There are well-established procedures whereby developers use the advance payments code to agree with the highway authority to make up the streets throughout a new estate. A consultation document has recently been produced by the highway authorities and local authority associations about how the law on unadopted roads should be improved.

The Bill allows district councils to contribute to the cost of street works. At present, they are prevented from doing so. Frontagers to public footpaths should have to pay for the associated street works, and vice versa. The cost of making up a public footpath should be included in the cost of the street works.

The Bill will provide increased flexibility for serving notices, and will ensure that there is provision to recover the cost of street works on behalf of a frontager, when the owner is unknown.

The Bill will allow authorities to disapply the advanced payments code when they decide to do so, and will empower authorities to release deposits after four years. In some cases, authorities have held deposits against private street works. The value has dwindled because of inflation and, with the passage of time, has become meaningless when measured against the initial cost of the road works. However, the Bill would include provisions to allow an authority to decide a rate of interest on deposits, and would include a fine of £1,000, for non-compliance, when the builder or the owner does not carry out the work to the satisfaction of the highway authority.

This potholed area of the law is not all gloom and doom. I am pleased to be able to say that local authority associations and the house builders have formulated a new agreement, which will be an improvement on the old one.

It has been estimated that the country contains more than 4,000 miles of unadopted road, and that it would cost over £2,000 million to make them up. As so often happens, Scotland has already addressed the problem: the Roads (Scotland) Act 1984 and the Security for Private Road Works (Scotland) Regulations 1985, SI 1985/2080, make the law on private streets much simpler, and remove some of the difficulties.

It appears that there is complete agreement within the Department of Transport that the current system in England and Wales needs to be simplified. Unfortunately, it is not a high priority for the Government, and to make any changes will be a complex and technical task. Nevertheless, given the existence of 40,000 unadopted roads in England and Wales and the phasing out of domestic rates, I feel that the system cannot he allowed to go on bumping along in a rough and ready way as it has, in many ways, since the 1930s.

One of my constituents has spent much of his retirement researching the legal liability of his own unadopted road, tracing it back to the Isle of Wight Highways Act 1813, which was subsequently repealed in 1925. Until that repeal, any island road that had been dedicated to the public was automatically repairable by the local authority. That small extract of the legal history of just one road in my constituency will, I think, give the House a taste of the complexity of the unadopted road system—five years of research by a retired civil servant endeavouring to establish the legal and financial liabilities for the unadopted road running past his house.

I understand that the last Department of Transport survey was carried out in 1972: it was established then that England and Wales contained 40,000 unadopted roads, amounting to 4,000 miles. It is thought that no significant change has been made since the survey.

The main thrust of my Bill, which provides for the paving, levelling and lighting of unadopted roads, is to ensure that frontagers can in future make their decisions on the basis of a simple majority, either in number or in the value of property. It is extraordinary that the nation can elect a Government by a simple majority, while residents whose houses front on to unadopted roads are prevented from making provision for their own comfort, enjoyment and safety—and for enhancing the value of their properties—by complex, outdated and outmoded legislation that requires everyone to be in total agreement before works can proceed. That cannot be right, and I know that I speak for thousands of home-owners when I say that we look to the House to replace a musty, outmoded tangle of legal nightmares with modern legislation that is easily available and acceptable to every estate that wishes to make up its roads, and to have them adopted by its local council.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Barry Field, Mr. Roger Knapman, Mr. Malcolm Moss, Mr. Ian Taylor, Miss Ann Widdecombe and Mr. David Evans.

  1. UNADOPTED ROADS 63 words