HC Deb 26 February 1991 vol 186 cc883-7
Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

I beg to move amendment No. 54, in page 36, line 40, at end insert— '(2) A highway authority may, in consultation with the Secretary of State for Transport for time to time require specified types of public service vehicles operating in its area to be fitted with equipment detectable by said highway authority.'. I am grateful for the opportunity to move the amendment. As one of my hon. Friends said a moment ago, events have moved rather fast and the television monitor where I was sitting packed up—it was probably totally confused by the speed at which we are proceeding.

My hon. Friend the Minister mentioned unmanned equipment, and that is what the amendment refers to. It is clear to everyone that the police are severely overstretched in trying to cope with London's traffic problems. It is equally clear that certain vehicles, particularly coaches—the amendment refers to public service vehicles—have so multiplied the amount of work placed on the shoulders of the Metropolitan police that my hon. Friends who have been dealing with the Bill are right to refer to the need to utilise more unmanned equipment.

I should like the amendment to be inserted in the Bill in an attempt to use such equipment to deal with the illegal parking of, and use of unsuitable roads by, public service vehicles, particularly coaches. Since coach deregulation, the problem has become almost out of hand. The deregulation legislation, possibly inadvertently, removed from London local authorities both the right and the duty to designate coach routes. I included public service vehicles in the amendment because I wanted to differentiate between coaches and buses. London buses serve Londoners, but coaches serve commuters and tourists. It is not London's buses that cause the problem, but incoming commuter and tourist coaches.

In support of the amendment, I shall give two brief quotations. The first is a letter from the deputy assistant commissioner of the central district, Mr. Innes, who wrote to me as long ago as 15 January 1987. That is a sign of how long some of us have been trying to raise such problems. He said: You will be aware that in the Central Area problems with coaches are quite horrendous. We have to balance the proper desires of the tourist boards to attract visitors to London alongside the vastly increased use of coaches for commuting purposes, all in streets designed for horses and carts. It is wrong for the House to pass legislation that puts huge burdens, with which they are virtually unable to cope, on the Metropolitan police.

More recently, on 14 February 1989, Mr. Brand, the chief inspector of operations for the Metropolitan police at Kensington police station, wrote about the problem of coaches parking on roads where they had no right to be. The anomaly has arisen that, under the Transport Act 1985, coaches that travel more than 15 miles appear to be exempt from many of the existing parking and stopping regulations. Mr. Brand said: Many of the tours do not require licensing under the 1985 Transport Act as these travel further than 15 miles. However, the regulations permit coaches to wait in any restricted street for as long as necessary to pick up and set down passengers or load and unload baggage. We know perfectly well what goes on with the commuter coaches: they clog up the main arterial roads in the rush hour and often drive around for hours on end trying to kill time in order to find themselves at the right place at the right time. That often means that they park illegally while waiting to pick up people to take them home in the rush hour on over-congested roads.

In the absence of an unlimited number of policemen to watch virtually every coach operator in London, we shall have to turn to unmanned equipment. That equipment could also be used to deal with the increasingly serious problem of pollution caused by coaches, particularly in parts of the capital such as the area around Victoria coach station. I presume that it is possible to devise equipment that can register given levels of pollution from diesel fumes and, if necessary, set off an alarm.

The purpose of my amendment is to force coach firms to fit such equipment in their vehicles so that, when they park in and use roads that are not designed for them, and cause unnecessary pollution, as they do at present, the equipment will be activated. That would make the job of the police a great deal simpler.

I hope that my hon. Friend will see fit to give a fair wind to my proposal.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Like the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley). I was caught unawares by the rapid progress of this piece of transport legislation. This is an opportunity to address the problem that coaches pose to those of us who live and work in London, and to many people who come to London on public transport arid end up touring London on foot.

Many of the major roads, and some of the smaller ones, are substantially blocked for long periods by coaches attempting to park, having off-loaded their passengers or, as the hon. Member for Christchurch suggested, driving around for no particular purpose—hardly an environmentally friendly activity. We must find ways to control that form of activity.

It has always struck me that the real red routes in London should be either the bus routes or the tube routes. They should be kept free for people to move quickly along them. The underground system should be designated a priority route and allowed to move speedily. The recent adverts on the backs of buses have been effective in getting the message across to those driving behind them. They call for people not to block the arteries of London by parking in bus lanes. If bus lanes and the underground system were red routes, we should have a public transport system and mobility around the capital that we do not currently have.

9.15 pm

I do not know whether the technicalities of the amendment are easily achievable, but I am sure that where there's a will, there's a way. There must be a mechanical way of identifying where vehicles are. In the days of the Greater London council, heavy goods vehicles were required to have a permit to come into central London. That was one way of designating the limited number of vehicles which pass a particular test and of monitoring it. It would be a good idea—and probably an inevitable one—to control the number of vehicles coming into London. If we do not do that sooner, we shall do it later. One category of vehicle which needs to be controlled is that of coaches, but there are others not covered by the amendment. They are not public service vehicles, but goods vehicles. They too will need to be controlled, and various ideas about how to do that are now gaining support.

I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic to the idea that we need to tackle the growing congestion caused by coaches in London. The most modern technology could be deployed to do that. I am aware that the Government increasingly propose the use of modern technology for monitoring which types of vehicles take which routes and for enabling people to identify congestion on the roads ahead so that they can make alternative arrangements. If people are increasingly able to monitor which routes are free flowing and which are blocked, it must be possible to do something similar to what is proposed in the amendment. I hope that the Government will be sympathetic to the general idea, if not to the specific proposal.

Mr. Chope

I shall address my remarks specifically to the amendment. I invite the House to reject it, although I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley) will withdraw it, because it is unnecessary.

The highway authorities already have sufficient powers under the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 to restrict or prohibit the movement of vehicles on their roads, including restricting the use of public service vehicles.

Mr. Adley

Is my hon. Friend the Minister aware that my right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke) and my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler) and I met the last Secretary of State for Transport but two, more than three years ago to discuss these problems? He tended to say the same thing as the Minister. Westminster council has so far taken three years—it is not the councils fault—to draft the necessary orders and to obtain the Department's approval. The Minister was quick to give Westminster council the approval, but it has involved the local authority in a monumental amount of work and will involve it and its community charge payers in considerable expense. Theoretically, the Minister may be right in theoretical terms, but so far as I am aware, none of the London boroughs regards the matter as remotely as easy as he is trying to make out.

Mr. Chope

I am not underestimating the difficulties that local authorities may have. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch referred to the expense to Westminster city council. Despite that expense, it has been able to set a reduced community charge for the coming year, and it must be congratulated on that. I understand that considerable effort is being made to try to achieve a voluntary agreement between coach operators and the local authorities. I am sure that my earlier announcement about extending the permitted parking powers and the parking regime so that local authorities have a greater say in the use of the roads for which they have responsibility—this will be relevant to the parking of coaches as well as to the use of coaches on the roads—will help to deal with the problem. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch would probably prefer that there were no coaches in London, but they form about 2 per cent. of the traffic in London and provide a valuable service.

The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) made a point about bus lanes. The red routes will facilitate the freer movement of traffic. We hope that one of the main responsibilities of the traffic director will be to facilitate the speedier movement of buses. That has been the early experience in the Archway pilot scheme.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch will accept that powers already exist. I have heard what he has said about the difficulties and technicalities of making the necessary regulations, but it has always been the policy of the Government and of the more enlightened local authorities that where there's a will, there's a way.

Mr. Adley

It would be unfair to detain the House longer on the amendment. It took me three years to persuade one of my hon. Friend the Minister's predecessors to invite the Chancellor to raise the road fund licence fee for coaches. I am sure that it will take a long time to overcome the damage done by coach deregulation. As Mr. David Weekes, chairman of the Westminster planning committee, said: Deregulation had left the Traffic Commissioners with greatly reduced powers. The problem is greater than my hon. Friend the Minister is willing to admit, and sooner or later we shall have to deal with it. I am sorry that my hon. Friend does not see fit to accept what I thought was a fairly straightforward enabling amendment which I shall, of course, withdraw, although sooner or later we shall have to return to this matter.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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