HC Deb 05 March 1991 vol 187 cc169-231

Order for Second Reading read.

5.29 pm
The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Roger Freeman)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill has two distinct parts but there is a common theme—the reduction of congestion. Congestion can be relieved, of course, by constructing new roads—parts I and II of the Bill provide new opportunities for that—and by minimising the delay and diversion of traffic by utilities street works—which is dealt with in parts III and IV.

We are continuing a record level of expenditure on the trunk road network which, we are convinced, will bring great economic benefit. That public programme will run to about £6 billion for trunk roads in England over the next three years. That represents a 20 per cent. real increase over the past three years and will be concentrated on motorway widening and trunk road bypass schemes. The programme will involve widening most of the motorways in England and, with some 150 bypasses in the trunk road programme, it will bring relief to many towns and villages.

Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South)

Is my hon. Friend aware that there will be a wide welcome in the north-east of England for the Government's plans to upgrade the Al to motorway status along its entire length? The northern region is the only part of the country which is not at present attached to the national motorway box. The Government's farsightedness in the matter has already gained them great praise in our part of the country.

Mr. Freeman

My hon. Friend is right. Upgrading the A1 is one example among many of the benefits of the public road programme—the trunk road programme for which my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State is responsible.

Mr. Ian Bruce (Dorset, South)

Is my hon. Friend aware that, although he is condemned by Opposition Members, especially by the hon. Member who looks after Berwick, for spending more money on roads, when they return to their constituencies they stress the need for additional roads? The hon. Gentleman talks about the need for more roads to Berwick.

Mr. Freeman

I thought that my hon. Friend was referring to members of the official Opposition, who are in a difficult position because some of their senior spokesmen are in favour of cutting the roads programme. But in their constituencies they are in favour of maintaining the road programme, particularly where bypasses are proposed.

The private sector is playing an increasing role and the Bill will provide it with a secure framework in which to do so. We envisage private toll roads playing an albeit minor role in total road construction, but as an addition to the public road programme, which will continue on the scale that I have just described.

Let me clarify the role that we envisage for the private sector. The Bill is not about privatisation. First, it is purely about the provision of new roads and will leave the existing networks intact and free of tolls. I repeat the assurance given by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State that we have no intention of tolling the existing motorway and trunk road network.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

The Minister will be aware of the evidence given by banks and others to the Select Committee on Transport. Do I take it that the Minister also gives an absolute guarantee that, even where a new scheme is undertaken by private finance, no question of allowing tolling on existing roads will be discussed as a quid pro quo for providing finance?

Mr. Freeman

I give the hon. Lady that assurance.

Secondly, the Bill does not create private highway authorities. The private consortia who provide the finance and expertise to design, build and operate the new roads will work alongside existing highway authorities. In most cases, the highway authority will be the Secretary of State but local highway authorities will also be able to make use of the provisions in the Bill and the Government very much hope that they will do so. We are talking about not only national toll roads but toll roads encouraged and approved by highway authorities.

Existing highway authorities will retain their statutory powers and responsibilities, including those which relate to environmental assessment, although some of their operational functions will be exercised on their behalf by the concessionaires. In all cases, the highway authority will own the land on which the toll road is built.

Our proposals in the Bill closely follow the Green Paper "New Roads by New Means", which my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) published in May 1989. I pay tribute to him for his farsightedness in pioneering this new initiative. I remind the House that we already have the Dartford-Thurrock bridge, built with private finance and to be tolled like the existing tunnel. The bridge is nearing completion and we fully expect it to be opened later this year. It will provide welcome relief to those using the M25 and those currently forced to use the tunnel. The bridge will double the capacity across the Thames.

The Severn Bridge Bill is before the House. It will permit the construction of a second Severn crossing, to be built with private finance and tolled, like the first tolled bridge, which was opened by Barbara Castle, as she then was, the Labour Transport Minister, in 1966. The Green Paper also inspired the competition for the Birmingham northern relief road.

Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West)

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the proposals do not include altering the planning procedure? If my constituents wish to object to the route of the proposed orbital route, will their existing rights under planning law be preserved?

Mr. Freeman

I have not yet come to deal with the western orbital route, although my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State answered a question on it earlier today. I shall have something to say about it in a moment. But I confirm to my hon. Friend that his assumption is correct. Whether a private toll road or a public road is proposed, the planning procedures will be clear. If proposals are objected to, they will be dealt with by a public inquiry. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, acting in a quasi-judicial fashion, will make a judgment on the results of a public inqury. The inquiry will take into account environmental and many other factors. The interests of my hon. Friend's constituents are well protected.

The proposed Birmingham northern relief road will be a toll road which will run from Coleshill to Cannock, providing an alternative to spaghetti junction for those travelling north or south on the M6. We are evaluating three serious tenders. Preliminary proposals are also being studied for the Birmingham-Manchester corridor. We expect to announce a winning tender for the Birmingham northern relief road in late spring.

The Scottish Office is evaluating three tenders for a bridge to the Isle of Skye and there is also great interest in the possibility of a privately financed fast link between the M74 and M8 motorways in Scotland. More private finance competitions are in prospect. As I said, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State announced earlier today that he is seeking views on the idea of a private finance competition for the western orbital route in the west midlands. That route would join the Birmingham northern relief road at the M6 and run south to join the M5 close to its present intersection with the M42. It would provide the west midlands conurbation with almost two thirds of its orbital route. The remaining portion would be provided by the M42, which is a public untolled road.

Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest)

My hon. Friend will be aware that several hon. Members from the southern section of the western orbital route have reservations about the preferred route and its effect on the environment. Will he confirm that, although the road will no longer be sponsored by a Government Department and will effectively be sponsored by the private sector, people who are against the existing preferred options will he able to make representations prior to the public inquiry to either the successful tenderer or to the tenderers per se so that the preferred route can be altered in practice? When the public inquiry considers the route, will it take environmental factors into consideration just as such factors would be taken into consideration if the project had remained Government funded?

Mr. Freeman

As my hon. Friend represents the Wyre Forest constituency, I appreciate his concern. I confirm what he said at the end of his remarks. My hon. Friend knows that there is a preferred route for the western orbital route, but it has not yet gone to a public inquiry. We have decided that it is a candidate for private construction, with tolling. When the results of a competition, if such a competition is to be held, are known and a successful tenderer has been selected, it will be up to him, working with the Department of Transport, to prepare the draft toll and road orders which will be made available for public comment. The matter will then almost certainly go to public inquiry, in exactly the same way as the proposals for a public road—the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) laughs.

Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)


Mr. Freeman

When I have answered my hon. Friend's question I shall be happy to give way to him. cannot understand his mirth. I am trying to deal with a very serious question that affects my hon. Friend's constituents.

A public inquiry is the right forum for considering all the environmental issues that my hon. Friend's constituents will wish to raise. It will provide them with the opportunity to argue for variations to the route. We expect the potential tenderers for the western orbital route to follow broadly but not slavishly the preferred route. If improvements can be made to mitigate the impact upon the environment, I am sure that my hon. Friend will not be slow in drawing his concerns to the attention of the construction companies which are interested in tendering for the route.

Mr. Snape

I am sorry if my smiling countenance offended the Minister. When I listened to his reply to the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs), I was merely reflecting on the fact that if the paraphernalia and palaver that he has just outlined for the western orbital route were to take as long as the equivalent procedure for the Birmingham northern relief road, the hon. Member for Wyre Forest would probably by then be the Father of the House.

Mr. Freeman

Such a delay will not happen. I cannot predict who, in generations to come, will be the Father of the House but I can confidently tell the hon. Gentleman that there is no reason to believe that there will be delay in constructing the western orbital route. There is a preferred route. The next stage is to hold a public inquiry. One of the purposes of introducing the private sector is to encourage innovative ideas and to get it to do the job quickly. If a sensible route is accepted, I envisage that its construction will be as quick, as, if not quicker than, the construction of a public road.

The House may recall that in June 1990 the Department of Transport issued a consultation document inviting views on the suitability of six new possible candidates for privately financed roads. I was greatly encouraged by the response from over 50 interested parties. The front runner among the six proposed schemes is a new second crossing of the River Tamar in the Plymouth area. We are commissioning further studies into the viability and environmental impact of such a crossing and consulting local interests. Subject to the outcome, we propose to announce details of a competition.

Mr. Robert Hicks (Cornwall, South-East)

Before my hon. Friend leaves the subject of a second Tamar crossing —I remind him that the existing crossing is already tolled —can he say how his remarks relate to the study that is to be undertaken into the possibility of a second road on a new line linking Exeter with Plymouth? The two projects are interrelated and interdependent.

Mr. Freeman

Yes, they are related. That is why further studies are required. That does not invalidate the arguments in favour of a tolled second crossing, but it points us firmly in the direction of ensuring that the location of the crossing is considered in relation to any new road. I hope to visit Plymouth shortly. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Dame J. Fookes) has suggested that it would be appropriate for me to examine the public transport infrastructure in the west country. When I do so, I shall confer with my hon. Friend in his constituency about the proposed road. Again the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East is full of mirth.

Mr. Snape

I do not want the Minister to think that I am laughing at everything that he says. However, he was unable to see the expression on his hon. Friend's face when he volunteered to visit his hon. Friend's constituency.

Dame Janet Fookes (Plymouth, Drake)

I am not sure to which hon. Friend the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) was referring, but if it were to me I can assure the Minister that I am delighted that he is to visit the west country. We always welcome visits from Ministers to the west country and their recognition of the importance of that part of the country.

Mr. Snape

I am sorry to have got the Minister into trouble with his hon. Friends. May I make it plain that I was referring to his hon. Friend with the new and fetching hairdo, the hon. Member for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks).

Mr. Freeman

Of the overland schemes that we suggested, the route between the M25 and Chelmsford seems the most promising. The Department will continue to work on this scheme, with a view to a privately financed competition after a preferred route has been established.

Sir Robert McCrindle (Brentwood and Ongar)

As everyone else seems to be making constituency points, I see no reason, Madam Deputy Speaker, why I should not do the same. I am prepared to accept that there should be a privately financed toll road from Chelmsford to the M25, but a few miles down the M25 motorists will be required to pay a second toll if they want to go through the tunnel or, prospectively, over a bridge. How much research has been undertaken not into whether the payment of tolls on a particular stretch of road is acceptable—by implication we know that that is the case—but into whether it would be equally acceptable if motorists had to pay two tolls on a relatively short stretch of road?

Mr. Freeman

My hon. Friend knows that the Dartford tunnel is already tolled. Before a tenderer put in his bid to the Department he would have to take into account, as was the case with the Birmingham northern relief road, the prospective demand by motorists for a particular toll road. When the competition is held for the M25 to Chelmsford corridor, the prospective tenderers will take into account the Dartford tunnel or Dartford bridge tolls and the likely demand for such a road.

Sir Robert McCrindle

Am I to take it from the Minister's answer that, in reaching the conclusion that the proposed motorway from Chelmsford to the M25 should be a candidate for a competition, the Department has not undertaken sufficient research to establish that the road is likely to be used to such an extent as to interest people in entering the competition?

Mr. Freeman

I apologise to my hon. Friend. He may not have heard my earlier remarks. I said that we have been consulting the industry for nine months about six prospective routes. Three of them were estuarial crossings; the other three were overland routes. Of the six, the two that seemed feasible, having consulted over 50 interested parties, were the Tamar crossing and the M25 to Chelmsford. That is why I am referring to them. It seems to us that there is prima facie evidence that they will work. Firm bids will be made only on the basis of a detailed traffic study.

The Bill will give those schemes a new impetus, by creating a new framework for authorising toll roads in much the same way as traditional trunk roads. I envisage, therefore, that the Birmingham northern relief road and the Skye bridge will be authorised in that way.

All those toll roads over land and water were either in the roads programme or under study for inclusion in that programme. They were all justified as serving the public interest. Including the Dartford and Severn bridge, the total programme amounts to over £1.5 billion.

The new procedure for authorising toll roads entails, first, competitive tendering for the provision of a road or bridge on a route or in a corridor nominated by the highway authority, national or local. The successful tenderer will be answered and the details of his proposal —apart from commercially confidential matters—will be made public. A concession agreement will be negotiated and signed and detailed draft road orders and toll orders will be prepared. They will be subject to a public inquiry, following which the Secretaries of State for the Environment and for Transport will reach a decision, bearing in mind all relevant factors, just as for a public untolled road.

Before dealing with the street works and utilities side of the Bill, for which the Minister for Roads and Traffic has direct responsibility, I will deal with some remarks made by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), who is not in his place. Speaking for the Opposition in the debate on the Loyal Address, he gave eight objections to toll roads. I will deal with each because all eight, though succinct, were badly argued and reasoned.

He said, first, that sufficient money had already been raised from motorists and he did not understand why motorists should also pay a charge at the point of use. The Government are anxious to make the point that these are extra roads, additional to the roads programme, and that there will be a public toll-free alternative to those roads. By asking motorists to pay albeit an additional charge on their motoring costs, but at the point of use, they are given a clear alternative, in terms of overland routes, between paying the toll and perhaps enjoying a quicker journey and staying on the public road and not paying the toll.

Mr. Ronnie Fearn (Southport)

Does the Minister have notes in his brief about getting rid of any tolls? I am thinking of the Mersey tunnel toll. Talks about whether that toll should exist have been going on for about seven years. Does the Minister have any notes along those lines?

Mr. Freeman

No. The straight answer is that there are no such proposals from the Department of Transport, to the extent that it is our responsibility, about that or, for that matter, about the Humber bridge.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East argued, secondly, that toll roads would cost more to build than public roads. There is no evidence to suggest that is the case. Indeed, all the evidence points in the reverse direction. We would expect the private sector, using its skills and innovation and better project management skills, to complete a private sector road faster and with good value for money.

Mrs. Dunwoody

The Minister seems to have been congratulating himself for some time on the way in which he has streamlined and improved not only the speed but the control of road building plans. If he and his Department are in such good control of the speed at which contractors build roads and the general way in which they operate, how does he imagine that there will be an improvement on the part of wholly private operators? What magic formula will they adopt that the Minister does not already apply, or is the truth that he is not at present doing the job very well?

Mr. Freeman

The private sector will design the roads and then build them. That is not, and never has been, the case with public roads. There is a division of responsibility between highway authorities for designing and preparing road schemes and private contractors coming in to do the construction work. Here we are talking about designing, building, maintaining and operating.

Mr. Snape

What is the difference between the reasoning of the Minister's answer to the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs), that all environmental considerations would be examined before the private sector went ahead and built a road, and what he said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), that the private sector expertise would result in roads being built even faster? Is he denigrating the expertise of his own highway people, formerly known as the road construction units, and the battery of civil servants without whom he rarely appears in the Chamber?

Mr. Freeman

I am baffled by the hon. Gentleman's logic. The public inquiry stage comes before the road is constructed. By bringing the private sector into various schemes, such as Dartford, the second Severn crossing, Birmingham northern and the western orbital, the private sector, using its skills and better project control and with its own funds on the line——

Mr. Snape

Better than whom?

Mr. Freeman

The public sector. A privately constructed road, in the judgment of the Government, will be completed as fast as, if not faster than, a public sector road, which is the reverse of what the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East argued.

That hon. Gentleman said, thirdly, that there would be greater delays. He referred to the Birmingham northern relief road, which was a special case, the western orbital route, the Tamar crossing and Chelmsford to the M25. There is no reason why there should be a greater delay in the completion of a privately tolled road than the comparator public road.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East argued, fourthly, that congestion on public roads would increase. Logic tells one that if one builds a road to help relieve congestion on a public road, those using both the new toll road and the public road will benefit.

His fifth argument was that it would presage two-tier road use. The principle of tolling is well established over many bridges in this country. The private sector company, the concessionaire, will set tolls at a rate that will attract custom. There will always be a public sector free alternative.

He argued, sixthly, that it would take 20 to 30 years to pay for a toll road. The Secretary of State will continue to own the land, as will be the case for local authority roads, and at the end the road will revert to the state. A Labour Government in the past supported the tolling of the Severn and Humber bridges with long payback periods.

The hon. Gentleman's seventh argument was that the road that it was relieving would have to be kept congested —"congested" was his word—to encourage business for the toll road. That is absolute nonsense. The public road will be properly maintained by the relevant highway authority and, I believe, will be less congested.

He argued, eighthly, that toll roads would ruin the green countryside. I answered that by pointing out that our proposals must be subject to public inquiry.

I come to the street works and utilities, and the Minister for Roads and Traffic will perhaps be better able to answer points on this aspect of the Bill when he replies. That portion of the Bill applies to England, Wales and Scotland, although there is a separate section for Scotland. The principle of the Bill—I gather that there is widespread support on both sides of the House for the provisions that implement the Horne report—is to lay on highway authorities the responsibility for co-ordinating utilities, the statutory undertakers, and their planning for digging up the streets and, at the same time, to place on the utilities concerned responsibility not only for proceeding diligently and with all deliberate speed but with reinstating the road properly and then guaranteeing the quality of their work.

Mr. John Bowis (Battersea)

Perhaps the Minister will clarify the interpretation of clause 54. As he said, there is a widespread welcome for implementing the recommendations of the Horne report, on the reinstatement not only of the roads but also of the pavements by public utilities. London boroughs fear that the clause might exclude pavements. Ordinary human beings talk about roads and pavements, but the legislative terminologies are carriageways, highways and footways. Perhaps the Minister could reconcile those terms and assure us that pavements will have to be reinstated.

Mr. Freeman

We shall return to that matter in detail in Committee. I hope that I can give my hon. Friend some reassurance. Clause 54 encompasses pavements and the public highway. The Bill intends to provide control in certain circumstances over pavement works. I hope that my hon. Friend and other London Members will be satisfied with the outcome.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

Will the Minister look at devising some means of persuading authorities that normally have nothing to do with roads to get their heads together and co-operate so as to avoid the ludicrous situation which I shall describe? The electricity authority, the gas authority and the water authority all insisted that three separate trenches should be dug on a 20 m stretch of highway. Surely that is nonsense. Some of us pleaded with them to be sensible and to put all three services in one duct, but they said no, that each authority must have its own trench.

Mr. Freeman

I sympathise with the right hon. Gentleman. The Bill's object is to make sure that the local authority, relying on the latest computer technology, keeps a register of proposed and existing street works that will ensure the co-ordination of the various utilities so that, one after the other, they do not all dig up the road.

Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen have introduced an element of humour into the debate and perhaps I could conclude on a similar note.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

I always like to share a good joke with my hon. Friend the Minister. Does he accept that all highway authorities, the Department of Transport and the territorial departments and the local authorities, together with the utilities, should urgently seek to make temporary reinstatements to some of the trenches that were uncovered during the recent frost and bad weather? They pose a real danger, especially at night and to motor cyclists, and during the next two weeks it should be possible with some push to cover up some of those death traps. I know that that needs to be done before the Bill receives Royal Assent.

Mr. Freeman

I shall certainly convey my hon. Friend's thoughts to the appropriate authorities. My hon. Friend the Minister for Roads and Traffic is beside me on the Front Bench. I have experienced some of the problems to which my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) has referred. I pay tribute to him for his work on the Home report. His early acceptance of that report presaged the Bill.

All hon. Members will recall the immortal words of Flanders and Swann which have been quoted many times. They run: It was on a Monday morning that the gas man came to call. I hope that we can soon add the words, "But only after checking with all his other mates, and by Friday he had made good and gone, job well and truly done." In commending the Bill to the House I shall finally refer to the main and, I suspect, the controversial part of the Bill —the section on toll roads. Our toll road proposals mean more roads provision than would otherwise have been possible and those roads will probably be built quicker. All will be built with proper environmental safeguards and, where there is a monopoly, the tolls will be controlled. Where there is no monopoly and a public free highway alternative exists, tolls will be set at levels determined by the market. Those roads will provide benefits to their paying users and relieve congestion on the public roads. The Labour alternative is to deny that opportunity. The result of its policy is either fewer roads or higher taxation. I commend the Bill to the House.

6.4 pm

Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)

As the Minister of State said, this is very much a two-stage Bill. Parts I and II provide for the construction and management of privately funded roads, and parts III and IV implement the recommendations of the Home review of the Public Utilities Street Works Act 1950. The first part is at best irrelevant and distracts from the steps that must be taken to tackle Britain's transport problems.

We believe that need is the proper justification for road provision and that privately funded roads that are designed to offer opportunities to construction companies and similar businesses must be properly scrutinised in the House to ensure that matters which the Government would regard as distractions are not set aside. What are these matters? They include countryside and environmental protection policies, which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs). They include interaction between land use, planning and transport, which were identified in the Government's recent White Paper on the environment but were not mentioned by the Minister in his speech.

Those concerns demand some answers before we go ahead with the projects that the Minister has outlined. What assessment has been made of the environmental impact of the first part of the Bill? What steps have been taken to identify and regulate any property development which will inevitably be associated with new road proposals and may be considered an inducement to construction companies to compete for such roads?

What details will the Minister make available to the House about special road proposals and how will such proposals be made available for public scrutiny? What consideration have the Government given to the conflict between the Government's current transport policy, in so far as it exists and was outlined by the Minister, and the need for countryside and environmental protection?

We are sceptical about the likely level of privately funded road building. Those of us with constituencies in the west midlands are aware of the long-standing saga of the Birmingham northern relief road. Despite the passage of many years, that road seems to be no more than a private sector twinkle in the weary and jaundiced eyes of successive Transport Ministers. The project has been touted round the private sector for years, but appears to be no nearer commencement.

Thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock), just before the debate started I received a Department of Transport press release which mentions private finance competition for the midlands western orbital route. The hon. Member for Wyre Forest spoke about some immediate concerns on that proposal and I did my best, inadequate though it probably was in the Minister's eyes, to reassure the hon. Gentleman that, given the saga of the Birmingham northern relief road, he did not have too much to worry about for some years.

The hon. Member for Wyre Forest amply illustrated the concerns felt by many hon. Members about the environmental consequences of this piece of ideological nonsense. He pleaded with the Minister on behalf of himself and other hon. Members affected by the midlands western orbital route to be allowed to make representations to the developers. I am not sure whether the Minister agreed because he shrugged off his hon. Friend's plaintive cry with his customary sophistication. That shows the difficulties in which the Government will find themselves when they substitute private sector competition, such as it is, for a proper and reasonable transport policy. I commend to Conservative Members who have been unduly impressed by the Minister's oratory an in-depth look at the saga of the Birmingham northern relief road.

If there is a proven need for the two roads in the west midlands that the Minister mentioned, they should be built and paid for, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) said, out of the estimated £19 billion that the Treasury raises from transport taxes of one kind or another. That view is not held solely by the Labour party. Employers' organisations and organisations such as the British Road Federation Ltd., which are not normally known for left-wing bias and tendencies, take exactly the same view. If those roads were properly planned and resourced, the environmental and other factors that I mentioned would be properly considered. Even the Government, with their naive belief in the private sector cavalry galloping to their rescue, think that that would be a better alternative than the sort of gold-card, senior executive highway which they are trying to coerce the private sector into building.

Let us consider the history of private sector involvement in the Birmingham northern relief road. That road was formally included in the roads programme as long ago as 1980, although parts had been considered by the Department of Transport as far back as 1971. Orders for the scheme were published in 1987 and a public inquiry held in the summer and autumn of 1988, when there was little opposition. In November 1985, the dual-three road, the A446M, was costed in the roads programme at £140 million. In the most recent programme it was not costed.

At a public inquiry the Department argued that the road was essential for the relief of the M6 between junctions 4 and 10 and to allow maintenance on the midlands links viaduct to take place. Those hon. Members with constituencies in the west midlands need no reminder of the amount of time that maintenance has been taking place on the midlands links viaduct.

Construction of the road is expected to begin in 1991 and end by 1994. In May 1989, the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon), unexpectedly announced that no ministerial decision would be taken as he would invite the private sector to build and operate the road, but he said at the time that that would not delay the scheme.

The Department told potential developers that their route should broadly follow the original line. Once again I am sorry that the hon. Member for Wyre Forest is no longer in his place, because in view of the Department's attitude, there is not much consolation there for him regarding his environmental concerns. Pre-qualification bids were invited in late 1989 and early 1990. Four bids were received and were all deemed acceptable. Formal tenders were invited in spring 1990 and three were received from the Tarmac, Trafalgar House and Manufacturers Hanover consortia. According to the latest information, the Department will make the decision. Press speculation suggests that it will be between Tarmac and Trafalgar House.

The Minister said that the decision would be taken in the spring. That was elegantly put. It means that there has been a slippage, because we were recently told that the decision would be taken in March. I am not sure when spring starts in the Minister's eyes, but I have an idea that it does not start in March. There has already been a slight delay. Perhaps the Under-Secretary of State can be a little more precise, as none of us is sure when spring starts for the Minister of State.

That will not be the end of this long-drawn-out business; once the decision about allocation of contracts is taken, the Department will presumably have to renegotiate a contract with the developers because the original costings were made some years ago. I should be delighted for some confirmation of that from the Under-Secretary or whoever replies to the debate. I should also like to know whether it will be considered necessary to hold a further public inquiry, once a decision has been taken.

Mrs. Dunwoody

I know that what really concerns my hon. Friend is the stress and strain that will be placed on Trafalgar House by these methods. Perhaps I can reassure him that since it is doing extremely well out of its relationship with British Rail Engineering Ltd., in terms of the amount of money that it is borrowing from Trafalgar House, he should not put himself out too greatly.

Mr. Snape

I always acknowledge my hon. Friend's expertise in these matters. I am sure that the Minister will have heard what she said. I must confess that the future financial well-being of Trafalgar House was not uppermost in my mind when I mentioned it, but no doubt its involvement with BREL will enable it to generate enough capital out of job losses within that company to make a successful bid for this contract.

The Department of Transport should tell us how long the decision will take and how such roads fit in with policies that are supposedly designed to reduce the generation of carbon dioxide by the British transport sector. The Minister said that there will be roads for ordinary mortals and roads for executive types running from the same point A to the same point B, although not necessarily parallel. Surely the Government accept that the construction of duplicate roads will generate more traffic. Surely extra traffic generation will mean more carbon dioxide. I see that the hon. Gentleman at the back of the Conservative Benches is shaking his head. He and I have crossed swords on too many occasions. If he would like to stand up and tell me why he is shaking his head, I should be delighted to give way.

Mr. Simon Coombs (Swindon)


Mr. Snape

I was not looking at the hon. Member for Swindon, but I shall come back to him in a second; he should contain himself or go and lie down, as I shall give way to him in a moment. In so far as the environmental aspects of the Government's road-building policy exist, do they have any impact on the ranks of Conservative Members?

Mr. Simon Coombs

The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting case about the idea of having one road for the wealthy and one for the not-so-wealthy—people like himself and myself. Does he think that there might be a benefit in road safety terms if the wealthy Jaguar drivers, who exceed the speed limit, were on one road, leaving the other road for people such as ourselves?

Mr. Snape

It was predictable that someone would lob in that especially cheap jibe at some stage during the debate. I had taken little bets with my hon. Friends as to which Conservative Member would come out with it. The hon. Member for Swindon was not in the betting, but he has obviously come down to the same level as his hon. Friends. If any hon. Members in the House who cover a considerable number of miles in the course of parliamentary duties have never exceeded the speed limit, let them stand up and be counted. I would soon have to sit down. I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Swindon would like to reply to that.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)


Mr. Snape

There is always one, and I shall give way to the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) if he wishes to intervene.

Mr. Arnold

I thought that the reference was to the Jaguar of the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape), not to the Jaguar belonging to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott).

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)

Order. I am getting a little envious. I think that we should leave Jaguars alone and get on with the debate.

Mr. Snape

I was going to ask if I might ride in yours, Madam Deputy Speaker, but in view of your strictures, I had better not. However, there is not a better car. It is built in the west midlands and I commend it to hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I think that we will have less of the advertising.

Mr. Snape

Our party is not renowned for free commercials, so I shall leave it at that.

I shall return to the question whether privately funded roads are necessary. The Government will have to concede that, if privately funded roads are necessary, it is essential that the interests of people who may use them are properly protected. The Bill specifically refers to some issues which must be included in any concession agreement and during debates in the other place it was acknowledged that safety and maintenance and construction standards can be dealt with in such an agreement. Not only does that not go far enough, but the Government have so far refused to amend the Bill to reflect those and other concerns. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Member for Deptford will return to these important matters in Committee.

The Minister did not linger long on parts III and IV of the Bill. Opposition Members welcome the overhaul of the provisions of the Public Utilities Street Works Act 1950. We especially approve the following proposals. We agree that the provision for local authority direct labour organisations to tender for utility work is fair and sensible and we hope that, having seen the common sense of that proposal, the Government will ensure in later stages of the Bill that some of their less enlightened Back-Benchers understand the reasoning behind it.

We agree with the duty' that is imposed on both highway authorities and utilities to ensure the better co-ordination of street works. As has already been said, few things are more annoying than the constant digging up of roads by various utilities. We are pleased about the reference in part IV to the needs of people with disabilities. We should like to know, however, how the Department expects the power in clause 70—to introduce charges for the occupation of road space—to be used. We understand that it will be treated merely as a reserve power. We do not want the clause to undermine the delicate balance of parts III and IV.

Finally, let me ask a few specific questions, particularly about tolls. For instance, how many schemes do the Government propose to introduce under part I, and where will those schemes be implemented? The Secretary of State referred to one or two, but, if only five or six are envisaged, do we really need the earlier parts of the Bill? Would not the schemes be better considered individually—or do the Government, in what I hope is the short time left to them, plan to introduce a countrywide system of toll roads?

The Labour party believes that toll roads will create a system of first-class and second-class roads—

Mrs. Maureen Hicks (Wolverhampton, North-East)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Snape

Of course; I am delighted to be thus described.

Mrs. Hicks

I have listened carefully to what my honourable colleague has said. I am rather saddened by his negative approach to the transport system. Does he not realise that, if he opposes the introduction of the private roads, he will cause further harm to the process of opening up the west midlands? Anyone who has sat in a car for some time on the M6 north of Birmingham knows about the congestion. I should have thought that he, as a fellow west midlands Member, would welcome the opportunity to introduce the private sector in an attempt to speed up the provision of a choice of routes. Business men in my constituency who will be affected by the western orbital route will be very disappointed by his small-minded approach.

Mr. Snape

Having been described first as the hon. Lady's hon. Friend and then as her honourable colleague, I am sorry that she has been so rude to me. I was trying to explain how her party's ideology had taken over its commitment, as a Government, to alleviate road congestion in the region that both she and I have the honour to represent.

I have been trying to show—obviously inadequately, as the hon. Lady has not understood—that the northern relief road proposals have been part of the Government's road programme since 1980. I shall say this fairly slowly. I hope that the hon. Lady understands that any further hawking of the proposals round the private sector and any further public inquiries, should they be necessary—we do not know whether they will be; so far the Government have not told us—will lead even more of our business men to sit fuming on the M6. If the hon. Lady will not take my sensible advice and travel by train—Jaguars notwithstanding, Madam Deputy Speaker—I am afraid that, thanks to the Government's ideology, she and the business men for whom she has so properly expressed concern will remain trapped in traffic jams for many more years while this futile ideological debate continues in the ranks of the Conservative party.

The Government amended the Bill at an early stage to allow tolls to be levied after the road had reverted to the public sector. Why? Will that be the norm, and is there some specific reason, apart from the ideological ones, for the making of the amendment in another place? Organisations such as the Automobile Association, the Freight Transport Association and the British Road Federation have expressed concern, fearing—I hope that this will interest the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Hicks)—that private finance will be not an addition to, but a substitute for, Government money. I hope that the Minister will clarify that, for the benefit of those organisations as well as that of the Opposition.

Will tolls have to pay capital as well as maintenance costs? If so, will not that be prohibitively expensive, as well as causing road users enormous delays? What concessions are envisaged? Will there be tolls for cyclists and motor cyclists, as well as for lorries and cars? How will the toll level be assessed and who will be responsible for assessing it—the developer, the Department or a combination of the two? Will an upper limit to the price of tolls be imposed anywhere in the country? After all, we understand that a study at the North London polytechnic's business school forecast that a toll on the double decked M25—if the Government were daft enough to propose one—would amount to as much as £21 per journey, given a rate of 60,000 vehicles per day.

How extensively have the Government consulted the European Commission about the proposals in the early parts of the Bill? When other member states have introduced tolls, the United Kingdom has rightly claimed that they would unfairly affect our road haulage industry, as hauliers would have to pay two levies—domestic licence fees and toll charges. Presumably the same point was made to other EC countries; if so, perhaps the Minister will tell us their reaction.

In industrialised countries, transport accounts for about 30 per cent. of total energy consumption. Within that 30 per cent., road transport alone accounts for a great deal. Transport is the fastest-growing cause of carbon dioxide emissions, and nearly 20 per cent. of all United Kingdom emissions are related to road transport.

According to figures from the Department, there are 140 million cars and 15 million goods vehicles in western Europe. The Department forecasts an increase in road traffic in this country of between 83 per cent. and 142 per cent. by the year 2025. How and where do privately financed roads fit in with the Government's environmental thinking—a question that I have already asked, but one that I ask again in the context of the Department's own figures? Despite much argument in the other place, the Bill contains no provisions concerning its environmental effects or its relation to land use planning.

The Nature Conservancy Council estimates that up to 160 sites of special scientific interest are threatened by the current roads programme, as are five county sites of wildlife importance, two trust reserves, one national nature reserve and three local nature reserves. English Heritage estimates that the programme will have an impact on more than 800 known archaeological sites; the National Trust estimates that 32 of its areas will be affected.

Privately financed roads neither benefit the environment nor relieve congestion. Will not many cars and lorries simply prefer to continue to use the existing roads, rather than paying tolls? How will the Bill stimulate a modal shift to rail travel which, supposedly, is part of the Government's philosophy, as espoused by the new Secretary of State for Transport?

Opposition Members believe that the proposals are motivated more by ideology than by any attempt to solve Britain's transport crisis. In Committee we shall do our best to improve the Bill—although we believe that the earlier parts are largely beyond improvement, and the Labour Government who will be elected at the next general election will look again at all its proposals.

6.28 pm
Mr. Peter Fry (Wellingborough)

Let me take up two points made by the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape). He seemed to suggest that the two midlands schemes should be financed from the taxation currently imposed on motorists and the motor industry. Does that represent a move towards hypothecation on the part of the Labour party? Alternatively, perhaps the hon. Gentleman will tell us what other parts of its policy Labour will jettison to fund the roads from the Exchequer. Perhaps he really meant that the roads should be built because taxes would have to rise to pay for them.

Mr. Snape

The hon. Gentleman refers to hypothecation. Labour's transport document "Moving Britain into the 1990s" contains the proposal—no doubt, in Conservative Members' eyes, Marxist-oriented—that large companies in major cities should be made to pay a 1 per cent. payroll tax, to be spent entirely on improving public transport provision in those cities. We suggest that, to pay for that, companies should reduce the amount that they spend on company cars.

The hon. Gentleman also asked how the roads would be paid for. He was obviously not listening when I made it plain that, given that £19 billion is available, if the roads are essential, the money ought to be spent to pay for them.

Mr. Fry

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his answer. I would merely point out that, when we went to Grenoble to see the new public transport system, involving a levy on employers, we discovered to our interest that there were more car parking places in the centre of the city and more cars coming into the centre of the city than before the public transport system was built. Perhaps public transport systems do not always create the desired effect.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about pollution. Surely he would agree with me that cars that stand in long traffic jams create far more pollution than traffic flowing freely on inter-urban roads. Far from increasing pollution, the creation of inter-urban roads could do something to reduce it.

Both of the matters covered by the Bill have been of great interest to me as joint chairman, for the past 16 years, of the parliamentary road study group and as the senior Conservative on the Select Committee on Transport. As long ago as 1983, the Select Committee argued that the Public Utilities Street Works Act 1950 should be amended. Almost two years ago, in an Adjournment debate answered by my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities, then Minister for Public Transport, I asked for plans to allow further private financing of road building. At long last, we have a Bill before us. Although the Department has not exactly moved with the speed of light, we should warmly welcome the Bill. As always, one or two minor details will need to be examined in Committee, but in general the House should approve the Bill and hope that it will be enacted as soon as possible.

I found the comments made by the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East a little strange. The Labour party apparently feels so strongly about toll roads that it has not even bothered to whip its members and does not intend to divide the House. The hon. Gentleman and I both know that if the Labour party was really so strongly opposed to the Bill, it would have brought its members in to vote against it.

Mr. Snape

Senior Conservative or not, the hon. Gentleman can rarely resist making a cheap political point. I made it quite plain that the Labour party is strongly in favour of the second part of the Bill. No doubt had we whipped our members tonight, the hon. Gentleman would have pointed out how illogical it was to vote against something of which the Front-Bench spokeman had already said we were in favour. The hon. Gentleman's problem is that he does not stick to the script.

Mr. Fry

Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I write my own script. I can only say that, if I have learnt cheap political tricks, it has been in many years of debate with him on transport matters.

Let me refer first to the second part of the Bill, which deals with street works. I do not think that we need say too much about that tonight. All of us have experienced frustration and irritation as a result of the constant digging-up of roads. I am reminded of an incident that took place a few years ago. A hole was dug in the road in one of our major cities. It was surrounded by fencing and everybody went away. It was a week before anybody asked who had dug up the road and which authority was responsible. In fact, no one had been responsible; it was a practical joke. The problem has existed for many years and regulation is needed.

As I said, we shall have to consider one or two points in Committee, including the right to charge a statutory undertaker for his occupation of the road and questions concerning emergency work, and further work after substantial road works have been carried out. I hope that we shall defer to the Committee on all these matters. I hope that they can be dealt with satisfactorily and in the spirit of co-operation already shown by the joint utilities —the cable industry and the highway authorities. The proposals are long overdue. There should be a minimum of further argument about them and we should seek to ensure that they reach the statute book at the earliest opportunity.

As the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East said, much more controversial are the two parts of the Bill dealing with the provision of new roads. There will be those—both in the House and outside it—who believe that we do not need any more new roads. They are perfectly entitled to their opinion, but I feel that they are misguided, for the reason spelt out clearly by the hon. Gentleman —the enormous increase in car ownership that will take place over the next 20 years. We already have the most congested main roads of any developed country in the world. With an influx of new traffic on the scale that has been forecast, our present network is in danger of becoming overloaded—even given the Government's far-sighted plans to improve the motorway system. The task of building sufficient new roads even partially to meet the new demand is clearly the Government's responsibility.

I do not want anyone to go away with the impression that I am advocating covering the countryside with concrete or asphalt. I believe, however, that successful inter-urban movement is the prerequisite for economic development and achievement. Some people say, "Put everything on the railway." Anyone who has examined that proposition knows perfectly well that if we double or treble what is being carried on British Rail—I would welcome such a move—it would still leave a tremendous amount of freight to be carried on our road network, and that is even if British Rail itself could cope with such an increase in demand. While I do not suggest that more and more money should simply be put into the road building programme—be it private or public—I believe that there will be an ongoing demand for road expenditure. That is why the Bill is important, as is the move towards securing more private finance.

Whatever our political views, we all accept that public resources will always be scarce and that public moneys will increasingly be needed for all kinds of transport infrastructure projects. Only recently, we read that British Rail needs—or has asked for—an extra £2 billion next year. We have learnt that the new light rail schemes that the Government are approving will be funded almost entirely from public funds. Only this week, London Underground announced that it would take seven or eight years to bring about the improvements that are needed, and its chairman said that the company could not achieve that entirely without Government assistance. In addition to such projects are the many experiments needed to improve access to buses and to encourage more bus operations in our towns and cities. All those activities will take up a valuable part of our national resources.

The need for transport finance is becoming enormous. Surely, therefore, we should welcome any proposal that will add to our transport infrastructure and take some of the strain off public expenditure. The urban improvements that we need are on such a large scale that it is essential that we find any assistance that we can.

We must put the proposal for private road finance into context, however. The 1989–90 Select Committee report "Roads for the Future" said that private finance may make a welcome contribution but that it will not provide a solution to the fundamental problem. Among the evidence that we received before we reached that conclusion was that from the Bank of America, which pointed out that privately financed roads would make only a minor contribution. However, the Bank of America saw such roads playing a significant part in providing major thoroughfares. It is clear, therefore, that, although the proposal will help, it does not provide the whole answer. I do not think that the Government would claim that it does.

During that investigation, we also discovered that the construction industry still had many reservations. It felt that much still needed to be done to make its involvement in building roads more attractive. For its part, the Select Committee felt that the time between conception of a road and its completion was still far too long. Even with the Government's welcome new proposals on planning and compensation, the period will still be too long.

In addition, there is the problem that the cost of preparing and planning a road project is very high. Figures given to the Select Committee showed that about 5 or 6 per cent. of the total cost of a new road project could be taken up purely in planning and preparation. If a concern is uncertain whether it will win a contract, few construction groups will want to put up or borrow large amounts of money when it will be a very long time—even if the project is successful—before there is a return.

I think that I know what the Government's response to that point will be. They will argue that the schemes that they have put forward have attracted many interested parties. However, it is worth considering the Select Committee's report and another quotation from the Bank of America: Investors need to keep a balanced portfolio of assets and this is not possible if the Government releases relatively few schemes at a time as at present. The private sector money would show more interest if and when a relatively large number of schemes is available on the market. I support the Bill, but I believe that more must be done to attract more private sector involvement because I desperately believe that we must spend more on transport as a whole.

One of my reservations about the success of the current proposals is fairly simple: although there are a number of obvious candidates for private money, at the moment that list is not too extensive. The Select Committee considered that problem. We took up the suggestion that more joint funding between the public and private sectors was desirable. We felt that that was particularly appropriate where there would be large benefits to the public which would not be extracted in the form of revenue by the promoter—for example, an increase in land values or congestion relief for the public road network.

The Select Committee concluded that, properly set up, there was no reason to suppose that joint funding ventures would involve Government subsidies or even Government guarantees. We thought that such schemes were a sensible way of sharing the risks and maintaining the benefits of private sector involvement.

The Government have taken their time to promote many more joint fundings, particularly on a national scale. For a number of years there was an insistence on either totally public or totally private. The most recent example involved the question how to finance the channel rail link entirely within the private sector. However, I believe that there are some encouraging signs. The climate is changing and in that respect I pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and to his work in public transport. He has been willing to involve the Government in schemes to improve transport efficiency. I want particularly to pay tribute to his attitude towards sensible light rail schemes and to his approval of schemes that meet the national criteria. However, there are many schemes available, but insufficient money to meet them. Therefore, the more that we can do through joint funding or by other means to attract more private money, the better.

Already many of our local roads have been considered suitable for developer contributions. Although that is welcome, there are problems. For example, it often takes some time to put a scheme together and to reconcile the views and needs of the local community, the local authority and those who want to take advantage of the development. Schemes are being delayed because of a lack of sufficient public money in the form of the local authority contribution and also because the developers must be convinced that the scheme will be to their best advantage.

There are two schemes in my constituency that have a high priority in terms of traffic flows and they are necessary on environmental grounds. One of them, the Wellingborough eastern relief road, which would complete the town ring road and help hundreds of my constituents, has had to be dropped from the county council's transport policy plan because the council felt that it did not have sufficient funds to build it purely as a county road. Therefore, the building of the road has been delayed until developers can fund part of it. A similar problem applies, although to a lesser extent, to the other priority scheme, the Isham bypass.

All that seems to show that joint funding can make a contribution and has much to offer, although the present circumstances need to be improved. One of my minor criticisms of the Bill is that it does not address that problem. I believe that more could and should be done to build more schemes through joint funding arrangements.

Another concern is land use. In recent years, it has been fashionable to develop out-of-town shopping and to open up new land that was previously not used for commercial purposes. That has happened frequently because town centres have become congested. This is not the occasion to debate whether that is desirable, but there is no doubt that the right kind of road and planning policies could cause more developers to be interested in subsidising or paying for roads if they felt that the scheme opened up new land.

The Bill tends to relate to access on to the road from nearby land. If that is to be the criterion, there is a danger that many firms will want access to that private road. Too many accesses to a road could constitute a road safety problem. However, a limited access to the road, opening up new land away from but adjacent to it, could create more interest without creating road safety problems.

It must be possible to allow a promoter to benefit from a development that would not be acceptable without the new road but would be acceptable with it. Such land would then have an increased value and a planning gain. If it was taken up by the promoter of the road and sold later when the road was completed, the proceeds from that extra gain could well form a substantial part of the cost of the whole venture.

The Bill's proposals are good, but I suspect that their impact will be more limited than the Government might like. I have tried to describe further steps which must be taken to encourage more private ventures and I hope that those schemes will come forward.

For a long time I have felt strongly that additionality was an essential part of the Government's proposals in relation to private financing of roads. Indeed, I said that two years ago in an Adjournment debate. I believed that we must be sure that we were not merely saving on schemes that the Government would otherwise produce themselves.

I have been impressed over the past two or three years by the enormous demand for transport investment in many realms of activity, and I have become aware that we cannot solve all our traffic problems simply by building roads. We must consider new light rail systems, new bus systems and park-and-ride. Provided that the money saved by building private roads is reinvested in transport infrastructure as a whole, my opposition to no additionality would be much diminished. We face a serious future unless we put more money into the transport infrastructure. The Bill must be supported because, whether we are road, rail, pipeline or water advocates, it will give the Government the opportunity to spend more money on transport as a result of the schemes.

For far too long, transport has been the Cinderella subject in national debate and in political priorities. That is the result of two main factors. First, we discovered that personal services were more important. One tends to win or lose more votes on personal services such as health and education. Secondly, in a local authority that is confronted with a problem, the first item to be cut is capital expenditure. That is true of national and local government.

In the past few years, there has been increasing public awareness of public transport problems and increasing public demand for the Government to attend to them. That increasing public awareness is the result of two factors—increasing affluence and the demand for more mobility, and the neglect of transport investment over the past 30 or 40 years.

Public financing will not solve all the problems of congestion, but it can help to ease them. It may not build many more new roads, but it will build some. It will not relieve the Government of their responsibility for public sector finance, but it can help to divert resources to where they are desperately needed. For those reasons, the Bill deserves support.

6.52 pm
Mr. Gordon Oakes (Halton)

Unlike the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry), I do not like the Bill at all. I do not like parts I, II, III or IV. Like the hon. Gentleman, I am astonished that the Opposition will not divide the House tonight. I wish that they would.

Parts I and II expand the role of toll roads and bridges. It would be a progressive policy to abolish tolls on some roads. The hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn) asked about the Mersey tunnel and the Humberside bridge. At one time, it was the policy of all parties to get rid of the ancient system of tolls on roads and to make all roads the Queen's highways and free to all. Parts III and IV replace the Public Utilities Street Works Act 1950, but they have more holes in them than they seek to prevent in the roads themselves. In parts I and II, the Government wish, in a doctrinaire way, to abrogate their responsibility for public spending and to shift it to tolls, to the private sector and to the motorist. They are taking us back, kicking and screaming, to the Turnpike Acts of the eighteenth century, under which people paid to go along a stretch of road. The Bill is worse than that: at least under the Turnpike Acts the people responsible for roads were elected or appointed to consider local and national needs and to provide proper roads. They were not entrepreneurs who sought to make a profit from the roads, which is what parts I and II seek to allow.

The Government claim that the Bill will provide additional expenditure for public roads. That may be so, but there is always a grave risk under any Government, and especially under this Government, that what is intended to be additional to becomes a substitute for public expenditure on public roads. It is a good cop-out for the Government not to spend more money on roads by introducing toll roads and getting private industry to build roads and bridges.

Like you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and like most hon. Members and their constituents, I am a motorist. I am becoming sick of the way that motorists are kicked about —by the Conservatives and by my party. I pay road tax of £100 a year. The intention of the road fund licence was to build roads for motorists. A vast amount of the money that goes into the Treasury is not spent on building roads but goes into the general maw of the Treasury. As a motorist with a private car, I pay very little compared to the road haulier or bus operator. Where does that money go? It should provide public roads. Each time that I buy a gallon of petrol, I pay a huge duty. Every gallon that goes into my tank contributes to the Government's costs of building an infrastructure that I expect as a return for the tax that I pay.

Like other hon. Members, I pay income tax. Part of that tax should provide the essential infrastructure, namely, a proper transport system. If I sell a property and make a profit, I may pay capital gains tax. Again, that goes to a Government who are seeking to opt out of their duty to provide a transport system. I also pay the poll tax. Like many hon. Members, I pay twice, because I pay in London and in my constituency. Part of that tax goes to the county council or to the roads authority for lighting and for improving and maintaining the highways.

In addition to paying those taxes, motorists would have to pay, as a result of the Bill, for the privilege of traveling along some roads, but the Government should provide those roads from the taxes already being paid by the motorists.

That is why I object bitterly to the provisions of parts I and II. I do not think that they will work. Contractors and builders will not jump at the chance to provide capital investment in a sector where it will be a long time before they see any capital return. The Bill is a doctrinaire attempt by the Government to deal with a real problem, and I think that it will fail.

Many hon. Members—including the Minister—gave constituency examples. I shall give one because it is apposite, although I do not like to use such examples on Second Reading. My constituency is divided by the River Mersey—Runcorn is to the south and Widnes to the north. Part of Cheshire is to the north and part is to the south. The first bridge over the River Mersey is in Halton. It is the Runcorn-Widnes bridge, which is unbelievably, obscenely congested many times during the day. People used to cross the river by ferry. Hon. Members may have heard the famous recitation of the late, great Stanley Holloway, which was called "Tuppence per person per trip". That referred to the Runcorn ferry in my constituency. If we have a toll road, as the Government suggest, it will not be tuppence per person per trip. Goodness knows what sum will be paid in tolls.

We then had a transporter bridge to replace the ferry. Again, it was a toll bridge, but the toll was not for a highway, but for a bridge. The transporter bridge was one of only three in the country, and it carried vehicles across the river and the Manchester ship canal.

A new bridge was built in 1963 which has two lanes each way. That bridge is now desperately congested, so there is a desperate need for a second crossing of the river. I wrote to the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Parkinson), about a second crossing, and he replied that the Government were "considering" a second crossing. He said that they were considering a toll bridge across the River Mersey which would not be near the present bridge, but which would connect Runcorn with Speke airport. It would, therefore, be linked with a dubious scheme by British Aerospace to make Speke airport a hub-and-spoke airport. As two such schemes are being considered at the same time, I do not believe that it would be a viable venture. The toll bridge would take the road over the widest part of the estuary, as my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) will realise.

As there is an existing bridge, it is unlikely that people will pay to go over a toll bridge. Haulage firms will not do so. We are told constantly by haulage firms in our constituencies how strapped for cash they are, so they will not add to the costs by going over what could be an expensive toll bridge. The bridge will not relieve congestion on the existing bridge. We need two public bridges—two roads. One should go in one direction and the other in the other direction. That would be the sensible solution. The Widnes Weekly News and the Runcorn Weekly News are running a campaign on the desperate need for a second bridge. The local chamber of commerce, Halton district council, Cheshire county council and everyone concerned with transport in the area agree that the idea of a toll bridge to link Runcorn to Speke is one of the most ludicrous ideas imaginable. The doctrinaire policies of the right hon. Member for Hertsmere and the policies in the Bill have led the Government to propose that for an area that desperately needs a solution.

Crossing a river is the highest point of expenditure when building a road. Building a road is expensive, but building a bridge is far more expensive. In view of the cost to the construction firm that undertook the private work on the bridge, if it was to get a decent return on its capital, as it would be entitled to do, the tolls for going over the bridge would be desperately high. The Bill seeks to lead us down that path. It will not work, and it is not desirable. In Scotland, in Northern Ireland, in Wales and in England, the Queen's highways should be free to those who pay taxes, as we all do, to a Government who are responsible for building highways.

Parts III and IV are designed to replace the Public Utilities Street Works Act 1950, which needs replacing because it is over 40 years old. In the very old days—the days of smaller units—we did not need such legislation because a local authority, such as my borough of Widnes, provided water, gas and sewerage services. One man was responsible for public lighting, for water supplies and for gas engineering. He would consult with himself or he would go to the highways engineer and say, "We are going to dig up such and such a street. Is that all right?"

The 1950 Act was introduced as a result of the fact that many local services, such as gas and electricity, had been taken away from local authorities. People had to deal with a nationalised body for public utilities and with a local authority, which made it necessary for new legislation. The public utilities have now ceased to be public; they are private utilities, whether water, sewerage services, gas or telephones. There is a need for another Act on that basis alone.

A golden opportunity has been missed in parts III and IV. It is sometimes essential for utilities, such as telephones, gas, electricity, sewerage and water, to go under the streets. I admit that. A vivid example came in the recent terrible war in Iraq, when we rightly bombed the bridges to stop transport going in and out of Kuwait. In bombing the bridges, we destroyed not only the telecommunications services which were carried along them but the water supply and sometimes the sewage pipes. That brought home to people a fact that we do not usually think about—that streets, roads and bridges carry not only traffic, but essential modern services. I hope that there are not terrible problems in Iraq from plague and from disease as a result of the lack of water supply and proper sewerage systems. What has happened in Iraq brings home the fact that streets and roads are not only for traffic.

Why is there not a far more positive approach in the Bill towards the use of highways for public utilities services? Why is there not a specific requirement for new roads, whether toll roads or not, in towns and in development areas around towns that services should go under the grass verge between the pavement and the road itself? That would cause the minimum disruption to traffic and to pedestrians. There are verges in almost all new developments. Why not put all services there? Pneumatic drills would not be needed for digging and there would be no disruption to pedestrians or to traffic. When services are reinstated or when new systems are being installed, it should be possible to provide a verge for the services to go under.

We should accept the fact that roads are not only for traffic, but for other services and we should plan for that. I should have liked the Bill to require local authorities, planning authorities and public utilities to use verges to prevent disruption from digging up roads. There should be separate facilities for public utilities. However, the Bill perpetuates the old system as utilities can still go under roads. The initial engineering may be cheaper, but in the long term, in view of the capital cost to the public utilities and the disruption to the public, it would be cheaper to use a special conduit along the highway.

The hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) raised with the Minister the pertinent question of reinstatement. The Minister did not answer him but quoted clause 54. When I checked that clause, I found that it had nothing to do with reinstatement. Perhaps the Minister quoted the wrong clause. I then looked at the provisions on reinstatement and found that the word "pavement" was not there. I looked through the definitions, but the word was not there either. The hon. Member for Battersea is clearly on to a good point.

When I practised as a solicitor 20 years ago, I dealt with many cases of people who fell over on roads, usually as a result of inadequate reinstatement. Unfortunately, such people are usually old, frail, disabled, or blind.

A reinstatement may look all right to the street authority just after it has been done, but two weeks later it may sink and cause poor old souls to fall down. Moreover, there is not necessarily a follow-up. The Bill does not provide that local street authorities must ensure that the reinstatement is perfectly carried out and maintained. The utilities will simply say that the work is temporary and that they will correct it later, but they often leave it for months or even years. Road reinstatements may cause great danger to motor cyclists, who may be thrown off their machines, or to cyclists, who may be thrown over their handlebars. They are also dangerous to pedestrians, particularly old and disabled people, who may fall and injure themselves, and those in wheelchairs.

The matter is important to the public and the Bill should deal with it because there will probably not be another such Bill for 40 years. I hope that the Minister will consider my arguments sympathetically in Committee, as well as those made by the hon. Member for Battersea, who clearly also regards the matter as important.

I expect that most other hon. Members will have received some material over the weekend from the National Joint Utilities group, which is a consortium of people who dig up roads and provide important services. The material consisted of some special pleading, but also raised two important matters. The first was about clause 48, which deals with emergencies. An emergency is an unexpected or unforeseen event, and public utilities must move quickly to deal with it. I know that the Bill provides for that to a degree, and provides that less time can be given to the street authority than it would otherwise have, but sometimes a repair must be carried out immediately as the emergency might be a matter of life or death. People may have to make enormous insurance claims for food that is ruined as a result of a loss of electricity supply to their freezers for more than 24 hours. That may seem trivial to the Government, but it is important to electricity users. Indeed, in a sense, it is just as important to them as using the street. The electricity service must repair the supply as a matter of urgency.

I do not understand why the Government have included such a provision. The matter was raised in another place. I understand that the Government want to be tight about it because they do not want roads to be dug up unnecessarily. There is much mythology about public authorities digging up roads unnecessarily and they are sometimes a little careless, but, on the whole, the work is co-ordinated. Unlike under the 1950 Act, if no emergency has occurred, the local authority could be prosecuted in the criminal courts for needlessly digging up the road. The street authority has such a protection. Will the Minister consider my fair argument about emergency provisions?

The National Joint Utilities group also raised the problem of clause 91, which deals with offences and penalties. Under the 1950 Act, only the highway authority could prosecute the public utility for digging up the road, whereas, under the Bill, any person can do so. That may appear to increase individuals' access to justice, but the Government should be careful. A vindictive, litigious person who wants to stick his knife in the gas or electricity board will be given a glorious opportunity to involve himself in spending enormous sums of money by taking the case to court simply out of spite. I shall not mention names, but I know a shopkeeper in my constituency who constantly complains to me that every public utility seems to dig up the road outside his shop. I am convinced that, with clause 91, he will be hotfooting to court week after week whenever someone digs up the road near him. The clause will also cause increased expenditure for the public utilities, which will eventually be passed on to ordinary people in their bills.

The Government should think again. Perhaps the provision could be expanded beyond allowing the highway authority to take cases to court to include other bodies but not any person. That takes it much too far.

As I said at the outset, I do not like the Bill. It is a cop-out for the Government, who seek to provide for private sector roads instead of what we are used to— transport services. I do not like the slipshod way in which the Public Utilities Street Works Act is being replaced. I should have loved to have been able to vote against the Bill because of those deficiencies, but, surprisingly, shall not have the opportunity to do so. I shall not raise a lone voice against it. However, I hope that the Government will bear in mind that the Bill is imperfect and that there is much to be done. They have a golden opportunity to put things right, especially with regard to street works.

7.16 pm
Mr. David Evennett (Erith and Crayford)

Following the interesting speech of the right hon. Member for Halton (Mr. Oakes), which is always an experience, I can neither agree with his views on the Bill, nor with his showbiz example of Stanley Holloway. However, nor could I follow my hon. Friend the Minister's remark about Flanders and Swann. I grew up in the 1960s and could not think of anyone suitable from among my records of the Beatles and Dusty Springfield to quote in my speech.

I shall begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Minister on his robust speech this afternoon and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on taking a firm grasp on the problem of transport and roads during their past few months in office. For the first time, my constituents, who suffer badly from poor British Rail services and inadequate roads in and around Greater London, feel that the Secretary of State and his colleagues understand their problems and concerns. If my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State can do for roads in Greater London what he undoubtedly did so successfully for the people of Scotland in the road building programme in the past few years, my constituents will be delighted.

The roads in our country today are totally inadequate for the needs of the modern age. On excellent roads such as the A2, which goes through my borough of Bexley, constant repair work makes the road much less effective than it should be.

I am well aware that this debate does not cover road maintenance repairs to the A2, which have caused us to suffer so regularly in the past year or so. However, it takes note of the need for a higher quality road network than we have at present. I appreciate that tolls are not always popular, at least in general terms, and tolls for crossings such as the Dartford tunnel hold up traffic and cause some delays—[Interruption.]

Mrs. Dunwoody

Pay attention. The hon. Gentleman is being funny.

Mr. Evennett

I should be grateful if the hon. Lady, who will no doubt have an opportunity to make her own speech, would give me a chance to develop my theme.

Elsewhere in the developed world, toll roads are a way of life. My constituents warmly welcome the building of the Dartford bridge and look forward to its opening later this year. The fact that a public sector alternative exists in the Blackwall tunnel and, I hope, in the not-too-distant future, an east London river crossing, means that there will be increased choice for motorists who need to cross the Thames in south-east London. Motorists have the choice of paying a toll at the Dartford tunnel and, subsequently, with the addition of the bridge, making an easier crossing, or travelling further, to the public sector road which has no toll, and crossing at Blackwall. The second option involves a substantially longer journey, but at least motorists have a choice. As I am sure the Minister will agree, Conservatives believe in choice. As we have heard from speeches this afternoon, the Labour party always wants to deny choice to the people of this country. Conservatives passionately believe that there should be alternatives and choice.

It is easy for all of us to say that we would like more money spent on absolutely every aspect of public sector development, whether in the health service, education or transport. But Conservatives are realistic and know that there is a limited amount of money for the hard-pressed taxpayer to put into the public domain to spend on desirable but often expensive developments.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State is absolutely correct that any additional money from the transport budget should go to the railway network. Network SouthEast in my district is a poor railway system. However, the investment that the Government have made is beginning to work its way through—it certainly needs to because the hard-pressed commuters in my district are tired of a second-rate service.

This country's road network also needs to be developed, in particular the roads round London, which are poor and inadequate. Therefore, I was delighted to hear from my hon. Friend the Minister that the public sector road programme will be unaffected by the Bill. The Government are endeavouring to improve and increase the opportunities for road development, without any extra cost to the taxpayer. Of course, we do not want our countryside to be ruined by building more and more roads and developing a concrete jungle, but I believe that there is a growing demand for road development.

The motorist is never supported, but always criticised, and condemned to a second or third-rate service, by the Labour party. But the hard-pressed motorist deserves a better deal. The Bill offers him an improvement in his driving opportunities by providing toll roads in some parts of the country. It is no good to use the green ticket and merely say that it is better to build fewer roads when we have congested roads, bumper-to-bumper cars, emissions from cars that are hardly moving and bad-tempered drivers being made to suffer. We need a developing road network. Therefore, I welcome the first part of the Bill and take issue with Opposition speakers who offered no alternative to road development.

The Opposition have merely said that they want more and more money paid into the public transport system —the railways and the underground. We would all like that, but for many people in parts of the country such as mine there is no underground network system. Roads are vital for people to get from north-east and south-east London to East Anglia because the only means of transport—short of coming into London and transferring to another public transport system, which would take much longer—is the car. There is no other choice. Therefore, I welcome the first section of the Bill, although it contains issues that need clarification. Perhaps those matters can be dealt with in Committee. In principle, I welcome the initiative taken by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State and his departmental team and look forward to an improving road system that will be in the interests of the motorist.

I shall concentrate on the second half of the Bill, which I also welcome. I believe that it will go a long way towards relieving existing problems associated with the repair work of our roads. The extent to which street works create traffic snarl-ups should not be under-estimated. That is especially true of prolonged work or where the same road is dug up by one statutory undertaker after another. Those problems occur in my constituency, in districts such as Crayford in London and in other major conurbations. Therefore, I shall concentrate my comments on the second half of the Bill, which deals with the control of street works in England and Wales.

The present law, which has been discussed—the Public Utilities Street Works Act 1950—is long overdue for reform. Times and traffic conditions have changed drastically in the 40 or so years since the legislation was enacted. There is now four times as much traffic on the roads as there was in the 1950s and holes are dug in the roads by more service providers than ever before. Some of those providers, for example, cable television operators, did not exist when the present law was passed.

Today's heavy use of roads means that traffic often has to be disrupted simply for carriageway repairs—an issue that I have raised in the House many times in connection with the A2 trunk road and other major roads serving my constituency. If we are to limit the disruption and congestion caused by road works, it is essential that work —other than carriageway repairs—such as street works carried out by statutory undertakers should be properly regulated by up-to-date legislation.

The Bill, which implements the changes recommended in the Home report, will introduce important changes that will lead to fewer holes being dug in our roads, street works being undertaken in a safer and more controlled manner and reinstatement work being carried out swiftly and to a higher standard—we should aspire to higher standards. We all know that many street works have been substandard, with unattractive and potentially hazardous results. I am sure that we have all witnessed the spectacle of the same road being endlessly dug up and refilled by a succession of utility companies. The Bill's powers, enabling local authorities to co-ordinate and control street works, will, I hope, bring to an end the farce of one company digging up what another filled in the day before.

Another feature of the Bill that I am sure will be widely welcomed, not least by the statutory undertakers, is the right for undertakers to carry out permanent reinstatement. Disputes over the reinstatement costs charged by local authorities are all too frequent and are probably the main cause of disputes between statutory undertakers and local authorities. The fact that utility companies cannot carry out permanent reinstatement also leaves roads in disrepair. Temporary repairs often leave humps or holes in the road for long periods before permanent work is carried out, which creates unnecessary hazards for road users, particularly cyclists.

There is no logical reason why utility companies should not carry out the work, provided that it meets the appropriate standards. The change proposed under the Bill is clearly sensible.

One issue relating to street works that is regularly raised by my constituents is safety—the adequate lighting and guarding of street works. It is essential to do everything possible to help eliminate the hazards that street works create for pedestrians, particularly those who are blind or have impaired vision. It is not feasible to include detailed safety requirements in primary legislation. Utility companies use various methods and the safety requirements of a static excavation, where water mains are under repair, will differ from those used for the rolling trench techniques used by pipe and cable layers.

I am pleased that the Bill provides for codes of practice on safety. Will my hon. Friend the Minister ensure that there is adequate consultation on safety requirements, particularly with representatives of disabled groups? Will he ensure that the codes of practice are published as soon as possible after the legislation is enacted?

The Bill contains three issues that worry me. I agree with the issues in principle and wholeheartedly support them, but have doubts about their practical operation and application. The Second Reading debate is not the place to consider clauses in detail and I am sure that such matters will be fully addressed in Committee. However, I shall briefly outline my concerns to my hon. Friend the Minister.

The first matter about which I am concerned is the limited definition of emergency works. The aim of the Bill, rightly, is to reduce the congestion caused by street works. Therefore, it is sensible to limit exceptions by tightly defining what constitutes an emergency. However, the present definition, which limits emergency works to those required to stop or prevent circumstances likely to cause danger, goes too far. Clearly, escaping gas is a danger, but is it dangerous for a home to have no water, or for a family with young children to have no electricity to heat their home in winter, or for someone who is housebound or disabled to have no telephone? As the Bill places the burden of proof on the person carrying out the work to show, in any proceedings, that an emergency existed, why is the definition so tight? I urge my hon. Friend to look more carefully at this issue during proceedings in the Standing Committee, on which I hope to serve with him.

The second matter about which I am concerned is payment for occupying a road. Again, I understand the idea behind the principle. The logic of discouraging unnecessary street works and of ensuring that any works that are carried out are completed rapidly is clear, but I believe that this will be a bureaucratic nightmare, which could achieve little. Utility companies are not in business to disrupt supplies or to tie up plant, personnel or contractors any longer than necessary. There would be no commercial sense in doing so. My concern is that if charges are made for occupying a road, corners will be cut for the sake of meeting deadlines and that contractors will do work to minimum standards, with a view to limiting the period of occupation. The danger is that the utility company will have to dig up the road a short time later to carry out emergency work. At the end of the day, any additional cost will simply be passed to the customer and little, other than higher bills for the consumer, will have been achieved.

The third issue that concerns me is the power given to authorities to order work to be carried out at other than normal times to avoid serious disruption to traffic. What I am concerned about is that the only thing to be taken into consideration will be the effect on traffic and that no regard will be paid to the effect on local residents. I am concerned about how this provision will operate in practice. Let me give an example of the problems that could arise. In my constituency, serious problems are caused by commuters who park on roads near railway stations—particularly those at Crayford and Belvedere. Many of those commuters are not local people; they drive considerable distances from outlying parts of Kent. As the Minister will appreciate, the congestion caused is a source of considerable annoyance to local residents. The volume of parked cars would make any work carried out during the day a serious disruption to traffic.

Of course, the streets authority could order that such work be done in the evenings—say, after 9 o'clock. If such an order were given, there would be no traffic disruption, but local residents would be far from pleased. It may not be the intention, but my reading of the Bill suggests that that is a possibility. If works are carried out at other than normal working times—particularly on evenings or at weekends—there will be increased cost arising from overtime and unsocial hours payments, as well as disruption for residents. The additional cost will, of course, be passed on to the consumer.

However, these are issues that can be debated at some length in Committee. At that stage, I hope, the Minister will be able to allay my fears. In the context of what the Government are endeavouring to do, they are minor issues. This is a good Bill. It arises from a vision of a better future for the motorist. Toll roads will provide a choice, and the problems of motorists and pedestrians that arise from the constant digging up of roads, particularly in suburban and urban areas, will be overcome.

The need to control and co-ordinate street works has been recognised, as has the need for the long-overdue reform of outdated legislation. I am confident that road users—drivers, cyclists and pedestrians—will see an improvement in the state of our roads as a consequence of the Bill. Transport is one of the major issues of the modern age. In saying that, I refer not just to public transport but to transport in all its aspects. That being the case, toll roads are a way forward, although I do not say that they are the only solution. I was grateful to hear the Minister say that the Government will continue to provide new roads and to develop and improve existing roads, but the toll roads will help with areas of great need that have not so far been addressed.

7.34 pm
Mr. Ronnie Fearn (Southport)

This is the second transport Bill to come before the House in a very short time. It could easily have been divided into two Bills. If it were so divided, we should find that one Bill would get full and wide support, while the other would receive rather less of a welcome. As in the case of-other road traffic legislation, I admire the Government's sleight of hand.

Having said that, I must declare that I am not in complete opposition to any part of the Bill. One could make an argument against the principle of private profit from toll road users, but it is not one that I intend to put forth today. Nor, indeed, is it an argument that would necessarily have my full backing. I realise that what I have just said may be seen as somewhat ambiguous, but it could be said by many hon. Members. I intend to restrict my remarks to the anxiety that I and many others have over the environmental consequences of private financing for public roads.

Ministers in both Houses have assured us that the environmental appraisal for private roads will be no less rigorous than that for publicly funded ones. That causes me great anxiety. I have never viewed the Department of Transport as a great friend of the earth, despite the wonderful defence of its policy since the second world war that was put forward by the Minister of State during the Third Reading debate in another place. It is not difficult to point to instances in which specific environmental concerns were overruled because the solution was considered to be too expensive. Twyford Down is a case in point. In that instance, it was considered that the environmental benefits and the protection of ancient woodlands that would be achieved by tunnelling would not justify the extra public expense. What chance is there of environmental considerations being given greater emphasis when private profit and responsibility to shareholders are the paramount concern?

My main objection, though, is the general lack of an overall strategy on the part of the Department of Transport. Red routes and, now, toll roads are examples of the Government's piecemeal approach to transport problems and are typical of the Department's longstanding preference for roads and private cars over other modes of transport. From comments made by Ministers in both Houses, it is obvious that the Government have a habit of confusing strategy with planning.

When I plead for an overall strategy, I am not asking for centralised planning. Any planning can be done at regional or local level. What I am asking the Government to do is to lead the way and to set an example by stating broad but clear objectives, and by providing the incentives, and where necessary the funding, to ensure that Britain has national, regional and local transport networks that are adequate to meet the needs of the 21st century. I want some sign that the Government recognise the environmental and social advantages, as well as the economic advantages, of good transport systems.

The introduction of toll roads does not reassure me. It is generally accepted that the building of new roads will merely encourage more people to use cars. Traffic forecasts published in 1989 indicated a growth in traffic ranging from 40 to 69 per cent. between 1988 and 2006, and from 100 to 200 per cent. by 2026. It is my contention that this level of growth cannot be met by an expansion in our road building programme without devastating environmental consequences. Geographically, this country is unable to stand such a great increase in road traffic.

We must consider very carefully how the impact of any new roads, private or public, is measured. The Government must take into account the overall environmental, social and economic costs, and then compare those costs with the costs of other transport options. I know that the Department has commissioned research into the monetary evaluation of the environmental effects of roads. I welcome that, although I am not sure that the results will be capable of rigid application, or that they should be rigidly applied. Much will depend on the use to which the findings are put. We must also find ways of developing a more sophisticated method of measuring the true environmental benefits and losses of all transport modes, including the land use charges brought about by new systems.

If I were convinced that the Government would change their attitude and that they would view transport policy as a key issue, encompassing the economic, social and environmental development of our nation, regions and communities, I would be less hesitant about giving my support to parts I and II of the Bill. However, I fear that the philosophy of the market will have overriding influence on any proposal for private road concessions.

Despite constant reassurances from Ministers about public inquiries and normal planning control procedures, I am concerned about the implications of private toll roads on the development of the surrounding areas. Although I accept that highway authorities will be able to acquire land only for a highway-related function, there is nothing to stop a concessionaire from buying land with a view to development. The fact that there will already be access to a road may make the planning application more acceptable and the countryside may become a developers' paradise.

I believe that development potential will attract bids for the concession. I do not think that many companies will clamour to build new roads in the sole hope of making a killing from the profits from tolls. The introduction of private toll roads will bring the danger of a two-tier road system, possibly even on toll roads themselves. Will the Minister take the opportunity to assure us today that he will not permit private roads or even lanes to be used exclusively by lorries? Will he knock that stupid idea on the head once and for all?

Many people will not be able to afford the tolls, which by all accounts will be very expensive. They will have no alternative but to use the free road system. Other European countries, including France and Spain, have good toll road networks which are a delight to drive on. They are virtually empty while other roads are crowded with local drivers and commercial vehicles. Unless the Government are committed to providing and maintaining a public road system of comparable standard, we shall end up with private affluence and public squalor.

Although we hear much banter about the word "additionality", I have little faith in the Government's commitment to anything that is seen as public. We have only to look at the sorry condition of most of our infrastructure and other public services to see that underfunding is prevalent.

In future, allocations of Treasury money will take account of existing provision, private or not, and the assessment of the needs of the Department of Transport will be correspondingly reduced. I fear that it is too much to hope that any money which the Department may save the Treasury through the private financing of roads will be allocated to the improvement of the public transport provision, which we badly need, particularly on railways. Perhaps the Minister in his reply will state that the financing of roads will help other modes of transport.

Those are some of my concerns on parts I and II; I hope to pursue those and other matters in Committee.

As for the remainder of the Bill, I can only say, at long last. For years road users and pedestrians have suffered from the dangers and inconvenience caused by constant, lengthy and unco-ordinated street works. The measures in that part of the Bill are welcome. Some amendments may be necessary, for example, to the permissible level of fees payable by utilities which undertake street works.

Many of the groups that represent disabled people are grateful for the changes made to the Bill in another place and for the amendments which the Government have promised. They seek further assurances and hope that in all cases they will be consulted on the code of practice and safety. The Minister will know that I sought assurances for disabled people when we were discussing previous legislation. I make a similar commitment on the current Bill. Perhaps I shall not have to follow that up because the Minister will have considered it already.

I hope that road work costs, which are a terrible imposition on residents, will be considered fully, although there is not much in the Bill on the subject. On the whole, I expect the street works part of the Bill to have a smooth ride through the House. Perhaps the other parts will not have as bumpy a ride as the Minister assumes.

7.44 pm
Mr. Simon Coombs (Swindon)

I must begin by declaring a financial interest as a consultant to British Telecom and an interest in the cable industry, not of a financial nature but as chairman of the all-party cable satellite television group in the House.

So far this has not been the most exciting debate. The official Opposition are now represented by three hon. Members, of whom two are women, which would certainly please the 300 group, but one would have expected greater interest and opposition from the Labour Benches than there has been so far.

Mrs. Dunwoody


Mr. Coombs

I am tempting the hon. Lady, and she is succumbing.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Perhaps I may explain to the hon. Gentleman that two women members of the Labour party are the equal of any 50 male members of the Conservative party.

Mr. Coombs

The hilarity which which that remark has been greeted is, I think, sufficient reward for the hon. Lady without me adding anything. Perhaps I should not tempt the hon. Lady further but should proceed with my remarks.

Having listened to some of my hon. Friends giving a warm welcome to parts I and II of the Bill, it may be sufficient for me to say that I share their feelings. I hope and believe that the Government will agree that there is no question of the publicly-funded road programme being cut in any way as a result of the additional funding that may become available from the private sector. I think that I can anticipate what my hon. Friend the Minister will say when I draw attention to the fact that the Government's road programme has been doubled in size in recent months and that there is now a substantial commitment to new road building, to the widening of motorways, to other trunk road schemes and to bypasses. That is extremely important. I welcome any commitment from my hon. Friend that there will be no slackening in the Government's determination to continue that programme wholeheartedly.

The new roads proposals in the Bill are exciting because they offer the prospect of additional funding. I want to add a word to the earlier exchanges between some of my hon. Friends and Opposition Members about the length of time that it takes to construct roads. I do not want any unfair or unreasonable advantage to be given to the private sector in building roads. I want roads to be constructed more quickly, irrespective of whether they are being provided by the private or the public sector. The period that elapses now between the original concept of a road and its completion is far too long.

I hope that my hon. Friend will say something, in reply to the debate or later, about the Government's examination of the procedures for public inquiries, which I understand has been under way for a long time—perhaps not quite as long as it takes to build a new road, although it begins to seem like that. We should give the potential private road constructor reassurance that he can begin his task within a time framework which would enable him to estimate the financing involved.

The experience of the French in building motorways and other major roads is interesting. They are much quicker. There is now a considerable number of toll motorways throughout France, which, as other hon. Members have said, are extremely attractive. Although the French have succeeded in persuading private companies to construct motorways, some of those companies do not last very long and the motorways then return to the public sector. The Bill proposes that roads return to the public sector over time. However, what would happen if, having constructed a private road in this country, a company then went out of business for whatever reason? What would be the Government's attitude?

Other hon. Members have already stated that they welcome the proposals in parts III and IV. We have waited a long time for the implementation of the Home report. I should like to praise Professor Home for his report, which is the basis of this legislation. There is a substantial measure of agreement between interested parties which have formed the Highway Authorities Utilities Committee and which has been pressing hard for the introduction of legislation such as that contained in the Bill. It is sometimes difficult to know which is worse—the disruption that is caused by the undertakers who open our highways, frequently in serial rather than in parallel procedures, or the patchwork of poorly finished repairs that they leave behind them. At present, the ultimate responsibility for reinstatement lies with the highway authorities.

Several hon. Members have already drawn constituency examples to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister. I should be happy to welcome him to various roads in Swindon, such as Kent road and Hythe road, which are a danger to life and limb in their present state. When I was the chairman of the Reading transportation committee a few years ago, there was great pressure from the public for speed humps, which are also known as sleeping policemen. On a return visit to Reading recently, I noticed that several had been introduced. In Swindon, we have the alternative—speed hollows, which are the remains of street works that have been badly finished. They have the same effect as speed humps in slowing down traffic because they have an equally disastrous effect on a car's suspension when taken at speed.

I am delighted that there has been such a large measure of consensus on the basis of the Home report and that we are now considering detailed legislation. The only snag is that the Government have not simply brought forward legislation that implements the recommendations of the Horne report. The Bill contains a series of proposals that differ from the provisions of the Home report—admittedly in small ways, but in ways that are important for the parties with an interest in the legislation.

I refer now to some of those points of difference between the utilities and the highway authorities on the one hand, and the Government's proposals on the other. Two hon. Members have already referred to clause 48, which deals with emergency works. I follow my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) on that subject. As worded, the Bill limits the definition of emergencies as danger to persons or property. My hon. Friend was right to ask how far that definition will stretch and how the courts will interpret it when, inevitably, a case based on the definition comes before the courts.

Clearly, the proposals limit the definition of "emergency works" to utilities such as gas and electricity. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to tell me whether an emergency that affects, for example, the communications of a large company would be of sufficient importance to justify emergency work being undertaken. If a utility is digging up a road and severs a cable, for example, to the stock exchange, would that constitute an emergency or would the Government be happy to see the stock exchange off air for hours or days? [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I have little doubt that the Labour party would want to see the collapse of our economy for its own purposes, but I suspect that most rational people—perhaps even Opposition Members if they were trying to be rational—would agree that that would be unfortunate. Such things could happen to any company. If a company that relied on computers suddenly found its power supply cut off, how long would that company have to wait for work to be carried out? That question deserves an answer.

Is it not ironic that the legislation affecting the operations of British Telecom requires that company to pay a rebate to customers who lose their service? Is it fair to demand that BT pays a rebate to its customers when the Bill would make it impossible for BT to take the action that is needed to restore that service? I very much hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to give some satisfaction on that point.

Clause 70 relates to the requirement for undertakers to pay fees before they are allowed to open roads. In the other place, Lord Brabazon of Tara said that the clause would constitute a useful reserve power. However, it is not clear on the face of the Bill that it is a reserve power because the phrase An undertaker … shall pay … the prescribed fee does not itself suggest a reserve power. It would be helpful if my hon. Friend could make it clear whether the Government intend to introduce a fee-paying basis for street works from the outset or whether they, intend to keep that in reserve as a back-up threat if the regime that they otherwise seek to put in place under the Bill is unsuccessful in bringing about the improvements that we all want.

I remind the House that about 50 per cent. of all street works are undertaken by the existing highway authorities, not by the public utilities which have been the main subject of our debate until now. Will those highway authorities —as street authorities—be required to pay fees in the future? If a financial system is to be imposed for street works, it would be better to introduce a system of penalties for poor performance or for over-long street openings rather than impose a system of fees right from the start. Most people accept the common sense of suggesting that those who fail to deliver should be punished, but that those who deliver satisfactorily should not be punished. Again, I should be pleased to hear my hon. Friend's comments on that suggestion.

Clause 51 refers to breaking up or opening streets. Does that include an undertaking opening a manhole cover to get at the plant underneath it? If so, that would have a minimal effect in terms of disruption or reinstatement. It would make sense to exclude from the Bill the opening of a manhole cover in order to deal with plant underneath.

Clause 54 has been the subject of considerable discussion already this evening. I can tell those hon. Members who have been drawn into the argument about footways and pavements that, whereas people tend to use the word pavement when referring to that part of the highway where pedestrians usually feel safe to walk, the law refers to the footway. Hon. Members will find in the Bill plenty of references to footways. That covers the point raised by, amongst others, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) and the right hon. Member for Halton (Mr. Oakes).

The 12-month restriction rule, which is the essential feature of clause 54, will create problems for some utilities. It is right in principle to ask a utility to plan well in advance, but sometimes that simply is not possible. Therefore, I hope that my hon. Friend will be sympathetic to the approach of utilities which simply cannot, for a good and reasonable cause, meet the requirements of the 12-month restriction rule.

For example, what would happen if two undertakers in competition with one another were in a position where one had opened the street knowing full well that the other intended to lay additional plant in that street in the near future? Would the second undertaker be prevented from doing any works for 12 months? If so, there is a case in natural justice for re-examining the clause.

Clause 57 refers to protected streets. There will be a great deal of sympathy in the House for the desirability of ensuring that some streets are not subject to works of any kind. We look to the cable industry to provide a substantial amount of new infrastructure during the next five years so that Britain will have a cable network, for a number of reasons, including the provision of a greater choice of entertainment. If we go ahead with clause 57 as drafted, there is no doubt that the cable industry will be severely disadvantaged. I hope that my hon. Friend will take that into account when we discuss the Bill in Committee.

The availability of arbitration for undertakers is written into the Bill in a number of places, and clause 57 is one of them. But it is not widely available. Parts of the Bill give no indication that arbitration will be available. Is the Government's intention to provide arbitration across the board where the street authority and the undertaker are in disagreement?

Clause 78 refers to liability for damage or loss. Here again, there is a fairly dramatic change from the provisions of the Public Utilities Street Works Act 1950. How widely does that provision go? It seems to suggest that any individual who owns apparatus in the street will have the right to claim financial loss if street works are undertaken in his street. As each householder owns the drain that links his house to the main sewer, that appears on the face of it to give every householder the right to claim financial loss if an undertaker is operating in the street. It may well be that the courts would dismiss any such claim out of hand, but if the effect was to lead to a large increase in vexatious litigation, I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree that it would be undesirable. I hope that he will therefore look carefully at the wording of clause 78 to see whether some reduction in the scope of the clause would be appropriate.

Clause 91 has already been referred to and deals with the general power of prosecution. At present, there is no restriction on the people who can prosecute the undertakers—the utilities. In the 1950 Act only the local authorities and interested parties have the power to prosecute. I hope that my hon. Friend will look carefully at the scope of the power to prosecute in clause 91 and see whether it would not be appropriate to reduce that scope.

All those matters will be dealt with in Committee, but my hon. Friend should be given every opportunity to allay hon. Members' doubts and fears and I hope he will find time to do so tonight.

I conclude by making two more general points. First——

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)


Mr. Coombs

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

We are putting a further important responsibility into the hands of local authorities. We are to call them street authorities. How competent are those authorities to shoulder that burden? Many authorities will find it difficult to employ the staff needed to tackle co-ordination. I make no criticism of them, but we must recognise that they will have a problem. However, I do criticise local authorities —Lambeth, not so far from here, springs to mind—which at present seem incapable of running anything. We are putting considerable power into their hands in asking them to take on the co-ordination of street works. That worries me and I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to address the question of resources and the competence of street authorities when he discusses the Bill further.

As the public purse will no longer have to fund those roads which will be built by the private sector, I hope that those resources will be made available for an increased programme of repair for local roads which have been the subject of so much abuse and poor maintenance and repair in the past. We have the potential for a much improved means of proceeding with street works in future, as in the Bill, and that is to be welcomed, but what about those roads which are not likely to be the subject of any street works in future but which still have the legacy of 40 years of poor repair and maintenance? I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to give the House some comfort tonight by saying that additional funds will be made available for those roads which would otherwise be left out. With those words, I give the Bill a warm welcome.

8.8 pm

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

I am unable to join the hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. Coombs) in his criticism of the excitement that has been engendered by the Bill. One of the privileges of being a Member of Parliament is that one has the opportunity to take part in such exciting occasions. This will probably remain in my memory for many years as one of the most interesting occasions that I have experienced, ranking a little below the occasion on which, at 4 o'clock in the morning, we debated rape seed. But everyone must have a set of priorities.

The Bill is an interesting example of an attitude of Government which I had not truly suspected. It seems to be an elaborate joke. We have before us a beautifully printed document, which is in effect two Bills jammed together. Its main purpose would appear to be that the Government, who are coming up to a general election and face considerable pressure on their transport policy—they do not have one and they will have to appear to have one —have decided that one way out of their difficulties is to suggest that some alternative form of finance is available for a whole lot of new and important roads. If that is the theory, we should examine it closely.

In America the Select Committee on Transport consulted widely the people who have built toll roads and the various authorities, both elected and private, who were involved in building such roads. The Committee also advertised in Britain and particularly within the banking community asking for evidence—an old-fashioned idea, I know—of any real demand in the private sector to get into the business of building main or other roads in Britain.

When the Minister's friend—if I may so describe him —made his opening speech, I was convinced that he would say that the Government had clear, positive and definite evidence that private enterprise in Britain was full of entrepreneurs who were inspired by the efficiency of private transport projects such as the channel tunnel. This week it has become clear that there will be no train services from the tunnel north of London and that there is considerable difficulty with even producing a signal system within the tunnel which will allow it to open on time. I expected to hear from the Minister that, inspired by the efforts of private enterprise in transport during the period of this Government, private companies were keen to enter into partnership with the Government and provide finance for new motorways and that the result would be a great extension of road building in the coming years. That was not what we got. It is not in the Bill.

We have not had any evidence from Ministers with responsibility for transport that the private sector is champing at the bit to rush in and build new roads. Indeed, tonight we have heard several speeches which dealt more closely with the inability of private utilities to put back the right bit of earth in the right hole in the right road than with the basic meaning of the Bill.

The Select Committee on Transport asked some questions and obtained some revealing answers. We asked about additionality. If the Government are sincere about providing cash, we need to know whether the money generated by the private sector will be an additional commitment to roads or in exchange for the amount put in at national level. If so, perhaps the Government can answer a simple question—one posed by the Select Committee: will private sector funding be allowed to lead to a net increase in the long run or is the spirit of the Ryrie rules still in evidence? We asked for a clear statement, but that has not been forthcoming.

The Committee asked about the costs of toll roads. Motorists in Britain who will have access to the toll roads will want to know about the advantages. They will want to know not only now long it will take to get from A to B but how the finances can be justified, what they will be charged and what benefits they will receive in return. Some of our witnesses ventured estimates of how much the tolls would be. For example, some said that they would be 18p per vehicle mile, not counting land costs. They said that from Oxford to Birmingham it would cost about £3 for cars and £15 for commercial vehicles. There was some doubt whether tolls could be sustained at such a level, given the existence of competing free roads. The Minister did not address that point.

The Minister suggested that private industry would gain all sorts of benefits from toll roads and would therefore be prepared to make considerable sacrifices to enter into partnership with the Government. But in America we were told clearly that unless the land was given to the company, in many instances it was almost impossible to make a toll road viable in modern conditions, unless there was an alternative means of making money out of it.

One of the witnesses who came before the Committee made it clear. He said that if, for example, he was asked to take part in widening the M6, he would expect to be given some input almost from the moment the work started. The quid pro quo would be simple. A private firm would undertake the extra widening, but it would put a toll on to an existing public road and the users would have to contribute towards the private developer's cash flow. That is fine, if that is how one wants to do it. But hon. Members from the north-west may find that their constituents who use the M6 will have the odd word to say when they are not only jammed in the queue to join the motorway but paying for the privilege before the widened road is anywhere near the planning stage.

I also expected to hear from the Government some clear statements that they looked forward to private finance coming in to plan better schemes. One objection to private roads has always been that it may be in the interests of a developer to divert a road in a certain direction in return for putting money into it—it may open up land, bring benefit to private individuals or firms and mean a great deal of money to them—hut it may not suit the priorities of the road planning authority, the people who live in the area or, indeed, those who will use the road.

May we have an undertaking from the Government that there will be no question of private roads being planned to go where the developers want them to go rather than where the people who will use them would like them to go? I ask that question because in my area we have been told that we are to be given the great joy of a private road from Birmingham to Manchester. Many people would be happy to see a road built parallel with the M6. But in my experience roads fill up. It is sod's law. The more roads that are built, the faster people rush out to buy cars.

But let us accept the case for a road from Birmingham to Manchester to speed up the traffic in both directions and the movement of goods and people. We have had no information about where such a road will go. When we ask questions about it we are told that only when the Government have evaluated the three options and talked to the developers about where they want the road to go will it be possible to tell the House of Commons where the line of route will be. That is not an acceptable way to plan a major road. It produces planning blight and considerable difficulty for local authorities and people who want to develop other services. It runs away with the basic question of road planning. An important part of any road development must be the right of people in the area to object to the line of route, the impact on the environment or the general changes that it will bring about in the quality of their lives.

We are told by the Government that a move towards private development of roads would not alter people's right to object in any way. But that is not made clear in the Bill. That right would have to be written into the Bill in no uncertain terms before I would be prepared to trust the Government. That may be ungracious, but perhaps the more that one knows them, the less one trusts them. That is why I am worried.

A road scheme is a long-term investment. It is not built quickly or cheaply. Considerable investment is put into it and a return is expected only over a long period. Therefore, the decisions taken must be carefully thought out and properly researched. Ever since the Government came to power we have been told by successive Ministers of Transport, who seem to go in and out of the Department of Transport's door like revolving puppets, that the Government have speeded up the commissioning and designing of roads, that they have introduced penalty clauses for those who construct roads, that they have simplified the planning procedures and that they have produced a high quality system that has cut much of the waiting time. Ministers tell us that they expect that to continue to such an extent that in future the time taken to plan and build a road will be nothing like the time taken by previous Governments.

If that is so, the Government should demonstrate where the advantages lie in allowing private developers to build toll roads for which our constituents will have to pay. So far, they have not done that. They have not demonstrated the commercial advantages of toll roads, nor have they said what commercial road builders would do that present road builders are not required to do. The fact that the Government skated so lightly and quickly over the point means that they have no case.

My objection to toll roads does not necessarily derive from a Marxist point of view. To be perfectly honest, I do not even know what is the Marxist-Leninist point of view on toll roads. However, the Government will have to demonstrate both to me and to those whom I represent the positive advantages of toll roads. In this debate no one has bothered to put that case.

We have been told that in future we shall have toll roads. There is talk about hypothecation—a lovely way of saying that we must try to find a way of ensuring that the Treasury does not get its sticky fingers on money that has been raised for something else—but there is no suggestion that the Government intend to break the habit of hundreds of centuries and say that the money raised from toll roads will automatically be used for other road schemes. I would not expect any Chancellor of the Exchequer to allow anyone to get away with that. They all have a dozen things that they want to do with the money. All that they plan for is how much more money they can get in, not how much more money they can shell out.

The Government's decision on toll roads is based on an invincible ignorance that arises from their political commitment. Their decision cannot be demonstrated in terms of road planning. They cannot say that everybody wants toll roads. They cannot even demonstrate that the City of London, or the Bank of America, or any of the other financial institutions have demanded such a development. They have not. Both the Government and the House of Commons know that.

The Government are doing something else: a Bill concerning street works, which is important and necessary and has been knocking about for a long while and that probably needs more work to be done to it, is being combined with another issue, new roads, so that at the next general election they can say, "We're going to build you all sorts of marvellous new roads because British industry wants to rush into partnership with us." As a partnership, it sounds to me like the difference between Abbot and Costello.

8.23 pm
Mr. Ray Whitney (Wycombe)

The whole House should be grateful to the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). Until she spoke the level of excitement in the debate was indeed of the order of that in a debate about rape seed at 4 o'clock in the morning. She has certainly brought some dash and panache to the proceedings. I am sorry, therefore, that beyond that her contribution was less positive.

The hon. Lady's attacks on my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and his colleagues were uncharacteristically ungenerous. They took no account of the numerous initiatives that they have launched. The only criticism is that they were introduced so late in the life of this Parliament. However, they are now producing sums of money that would have been unthinkable under previous Labour Administrations and that would be just as unthinkable if, heaven forfend, another Labour Government came to power. That has been clearly demonstrated in every statement made by Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen. The economy of this country would be wrecked. A road programme, or any other programme, would then be completely out of the question.

The hon. Lady was not sure whether it was Marxism or Marxist-Leninism that led to her opposition to toll roads. I believe that it was neither; it was something much more deep and fundamental—a totally blind, deep-seated, 1950s resistance to any new idea. That is characteristic of the Labour party.

I intend to refer to part III. I must declare my interest in the cable industry. I founded and now I am the chairman of a cable television company. My interest and involvement in the cable industry dates back to about 1981. The Bill will have an important impact on the cable industry, which will play a crucial role in the sensible management and maintenance of the streets and highways of this country, particularly during the next few years. The exciting, new construction programme resulting from the recently awarded franchises covering 70 per cent. of households means that the cable companies will probably construct as much of the infrastructure as all the other public utilities combined.

Most of the provisions in the Bill are based on the Horne report. The cable industry will help to create a high-tech modern network that will bring great benefits to this country—both to the domestic consumer and to the business sector. The industry welcomes the general objectives of the Bill, in particular the power to extend cable franchises and to carry out its own reinstatement of works. The cable industry, more than any other public utility contractor, has the strongest possible incentive to carry out good reinstatement. When the cable operator has dug a hole, carried out the work and then filled in the hole he has to knock on householders' doors and try to sell his product. He has a strong incentive, therefore, to carry out good, effective and permanent reinstatement.

My hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. Coombs) referred to the fact that improvements can be made to the Bill in Committee. It would be inappropriate to go through them in detail during a Second Reading debate, but I intend to mention two of them. They deviate from the Horne report. The first is the fee for the occupation of the highway. The question is whether that is intended to be a reserve power. But the Government have taken the matter further than the Horne report and I hope that they will reconsider the matter in Committee, particularly if the provision is left unclear on the issue of whether it is a reserve power.

A second area on which the spotlight should be turned in Committee is clause 78 and the liability for damage or loss which may be caused as a result of street works. The liability provided for in the Bill goes beyond the limits recommended by Home, which said that the liability of utilities should be confined to making good any physical damage caused by undertakers to the street or other apparatus in it.

The need to make sure that the climate is right for the cable industry, which means right for the people of Britain, was underlined this afternoon with the encouraging announcement by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in his White Paper following the duopoly review of the telecommunications industry. My right hon. Friend made a slight error when he suggested that cable operators would be spending about £3 billion in the coming five years. Most industry estimates put the figure at about £5 billion.

I hope that now that the duopoly review has come out the way it seems to be moving, more investment than hitherto appeared likely will come from British investors. It will go towards creating, unique in the world, a high-grade, very high-tech—indeed, the ultimate in modern technology—telecommunications network.

If that objective is to be achieved—all the building blocks are now in place after many years of making progress; the omens and prospects are extremely good—it is crucial that the few remaining areas where the Bill can be improved should receive consideration in Committee. Then our objectives for improving communications, in addition to improving the maintenance of our streets and highways, which is the primary objective of the Bill, will be in our grasp.

I congratulate the Government on introducing the Bill. Parts I and II, which extend the range of ideas for the road network, are to be highly commended and I have pleasure in supporting the Bill on Second Reading.

8.32 pm
Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

Seventy-seven clauses in the Bill relate exclusively to Scotland, so I make no apologies for intervening in the debate. The appearance of those clauses may or may not have anything to do with the fact that the comparatively new Secretary of State for Transport is the right hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind), who is not affectionately remembered from his tenure of office as Secretary of State for Scotland. That is particularly so in transport matters, for it has not escaped the attention of many people in Scotland that he managed to spend more money on roads around London in his first six days than he spent on transport as a whole in Scotland during his six years as Secretary of State for Scotland.

Mr. Ian Bruce

The hon. Gentleman has often reminded us of the Socialist majority in Scotland. Perhaps my right hon. and learned Friend, when Secretary of State for Scotland, listened to the strictures of Labour Members to the effect that we should not spend money on roads and should even discourage motorists from using the roads.

Mr. Home Robertson

That was a phenomenally silly debating point. If the hon. Gentleman had ever been to Scotland, he would appreciate how much the entire economy there depends heavily on road transport. Indeed, there is no alternative to road transport in much of Scotland, and the condition of the road network is deplorable in many areas.

The Scottish aspects of part II of the Bill relate to toll roads, of which we have a number, or at any rate a number of de facto toll roads, namely, the bridges. I do not know how one can separate bridges from roads, of which they form a part. We must pay tolls to cross the Firth of Forth on the Forth bridge, the Firth of Tay on the Tay bridge and the Erskine bridge, and in due course the Minister proposes to have a privately funded road bridge built from Kyleakin to the Kyle of Lochalsh to form a road link to the Isle of Skye, and that will be a toll bridge.

I regard the imposition of tolls on those essential sections of road as a totally unreasonable imposition on the affected communities. It is a fiction to say that people have a choice because they can use an alternative road to get from one place to another. Try telling that to the people of Fife, who must pay to get in and out of the region, and perhaps that will apply even more so to the proposed bridge to the island of Skye. When that is constructed, it will be the only way on and off the island. People will have to pay to use it and they will have no alternative.

Toll roads represent a discriminatory and unfair imposition on people and businesses in areas which are dependent on toll links. I suspect that the experience of the financing of the Forth road bridge shows that the whole toll system is more bother than it is worth. It is an expensive undertaking to continue collecting the tolls, with all the hassle involved in that, and I doubt whether all that much has been achieved.

I suppose that part II of the Bill is paving the way, from Scotland's point of view, for the so-called fast link, which the Scottish Office is proposing, to be funded privately to establish a new road link from the west of Edinburgh to join the A74 road near Biggar. I regard that as a gimmick in many ways and doubt whether it will come to pass. I think it unlikely that commercial investors will be all that interested in footing the bill to build a road in that part of the country.

Even if they were to do so, why should people from the west side of Edinburgh—for that matter, from anywhere in Edinburgh or from the area which I represent in Lothian region, and businesses in those areas—have to pay a toll to get access to the road southwards towards the west of England? It is discriminatory.

There may be a case in principle for establishing tolls. Equally, from my point of view, there is a case in principle for not having tolls. Either the whole network or none of it should be covered by tolls. It is wrong that it should be discriminatory and that unfortunate people in some areas should have to pay to travel about.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton), who I am glad to see on the Government Front Bench, will not be surprised to hear me refer to the burning need for investment in the Al, the highway which is supposed to serve my constituency. The hon. Gentleman knows it well, being a constituent of mine.

The House has heard me going on and on, and will hear me going on more, about the shortcomings of the A1 trunk road and the single carriageway section of the so-called great north road between Musselburgh in my constituency and Morpeth in Northumberland. That road is hopelessly inadequate to meet the needs of the traffic there and is a serious handicap to travel and trade between the east of Scotland and the east of England.

I again draw the Minister's attention to the joint report produced last year by the three local highways authorities —Lothian regional council, The Borders regional council, and Northumberland county council. That report made an overwhelming case for a phased upgrading of that route. There is no way that that will be done by the private sector. There is only one way to upgrade that 60-mile stretch of highway, which is the missing link between the east of England and the east of Scotland, and that is by public investment. The road is congested and dangerous and it gives rise to accumulating difficulties in my part of Scotland. Fully a third of the traffic on the A1 consists of heavy goods vehicles. It is a single carriageway and twists a great deal, and that gives rise to what the Minister and his officials call "platooning" of traffic. It would be more accurate to refer to convoys of traffic. The situation is chaotic and the issue will not go away. I hope that the Department of Transport and the Scottish Office will continue actively to consider the case for upgrading the A1.

I shall now deal with part IV of the Bill as it affects Scotland. It is related to congestion on the Al because of the high proportion of heavy goods vehicles. The situation is aggravated by road works, whether by the highways authority or the Scottish Development Department or the statutory undertakings, such as British Gas, Scottish Power, Scottish Nuclear, British Telecom or the water department of Lothian regional council.

In a written question that I tabled last month I asked the Secretary of State for Scotland to list the locations and duration of temporary traffic light controls on the Scottish section of the Al trunk road during the last year, giving the reason for each case."—[Official Report, 12 February 1991; Vol. 185, c. 452.] I will not bore the House by referring to the Minister's reply in detail, because it takes up almost a page of Hansard and it is in small print. I shall highlight a couple of instances which have caused chaos in my constituency last year. The Minister will be aware of them.

In his reply the Minister said that for six months from June to December there were traffic lights at a maximum of two locations because of a gas main installation between Haddington and East Linton. Just up the road, for four months between April and August, there was another set where a new roundabout was being constructed by the Minister's Department at Haddington. That makes three sets of temporary traffic lights on the single carriageway Al in East Lothian. They caused absolute mayhem for people in my constituency travelling to and from work in Edinburgh. It was not uncommon for people to be delayed for half an hour, three quarters of an hour or even an hour by those temporary traffic lights. There were 16 more temporary traffic lights further south of that section of the A1 in The Borders region, and they operated at different times during the same period.

Such delays lead to chaos, cause long convoys of trucks and create dangerous traffic conditions and frustrated people. The Bill is supposed to improve the situation, but I suspect that little more than pious hopes are being expressed. Clause 113(1) reads: A road works authority shall use their best endeavours to co-ordinate the execution of work of all kinds (including works for road purposes) in the roads for which they are responsible—". I know that Lothian regional council used its best endeavours to prevent chaos in my part of the world last year, but it still happened. I hope that there will be powers to ensure that local highway authorities, which can foresee the kind of difficulties that will arise in their areas, will manage and phase roadworks not only by their own work force but also by statutory undertakers and gas boards and so on to overcome such problems. They must be able to ensure that works do not all occur at once but are properly phased so that traffic is kept flowing.

We have all experienced the frustration of being stuck for what can seem a long time at a red temporary traffic light in the middle of the country. Sometimes we can see that there is no traffic coming in the opposite direction and are tempted to jump the red light. There is no need for such frustration because "smart" traffic lights, which can tell when there is no traffic coming, can help to keep the traffic moving. I am glad to see that some contractors are using such equipment. That should be the norm rather than the exception. I hope that Ministers will ensure that local authorities and contractors working on roads will use the most up-to-date equipment to avoid unnecessary congestion.

I reiterate that I am not happy about the principle of tolls. They should be done away with, and I hope that part IV of the Bill will lead to better management and co-ordination of street works. However, I am not optimistic.

8.45 pm
Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley)

It was interesting to note that the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) thought it necessary to justify his taking part in the debate. The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but he said that he spoke as a Scottish Member because there was some Scottish content in the Bill. Even if there was not a Scottish dimension to the Bill, I would welcome his contribution, just as I hope that in future he will welcome my contributions at Scottish Question Time.

Mr. Home Robertson

No deal.

Mr. Riddick

That is an interesting observation.

The hon. Gentleman was rather mean-minded in his comments about my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. An enormous amount of public money has been pumped into Scotland. I spend my summer holidays in Scotland every year. I drive up to Ullapool, and year after year I have seen an improvement in the quality of the roads. I have seen roads widened and dual carriageways introduced. The hon. Gentleman should give credit where credit is due.

Mr. Home Robertson


Mr. Riddick

For example, I drive up the A74 and the A9, both of which have been significantly improved. I at least congratulate my hon. Friends in the Scottish Office on the way in which they have improved Scotland's roads.

I shall devote most of my speech to parts III and IV of the Bill, which deal with street works. However I welcome parts I and II, which will encourage the private sector to initiate road building schemes and will bring private capital to an area which has been almost the sole preserve of the public sector. There has always been pressure on public spending, and when roads have to compete with hospitals and schools and other vital public services, it is almost inevitable that not as much money will be spent on new roads as we would like. The Bill will provide the opportunity for extra private capital to be brought into this area.

The speech of the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) demonstrated once again that the Labour party has an ideological hang-up, a hostility, to private enterprise. It does not want private enterprise to be involved in the designing and building of roads. The hon. Gentleman accused the Government of being ideological in parts I and II of the Bill; but it is Labour Members who are being ideological in their opposition to these parts of the Bill.

You may remember, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I initiated an Adjournment debate last October on the state of the roads in Kirklees, which is my local authority area. At that time—before the Queen's Speech—I called for legislation to be introduced to implement the Home report's recommendations. You gently chided me for calling for legislation in an Adjournment debate as the rules of the House do not allow that. I am delighted that the Bill is now before the House and that the recommendations of the Home report will be implemented.

Anyone who goes to west Yorkshire knows only too well when they have arrived in Kirklees, not merely because of the reassuring signs telling them that they have entered a nuclear free zone, but because the roads seem bumpier and less comfortable to drive on. Potholes and uneven surfaces abound in Kirklees, but local roads in other parts of the country also leave much to be desired.

Mr. Jimmy Dunnachie (Glasgow, Pollok)

It is lack of money.

Mr. Riddick

That is not the case and I shall demonstrate later in my speech that it is not the problem. More often than not, the cause of such problems is the way in which local authorities have failed to support utility companies. We know that the main cause of the problem is that utility companies have dug up the roads to lay new pipes or cables, or to repair the existing ones. On average, nearly 30,000 excavations are carried out in Kirklees every year. That is a phenomenal number. Yet utility companies are unable to complete the work of excavating the road that they started. The Bill will give them the power to do the job properly. Indeed, it will not merely give them the power but will place responsibility for full reinstatement of roads fairly and squarely on their shoulders, and I welcome that. From my conversations with representatives of utility companies, I understand that they also welcome the Bill.

Kirklees council, like many other highway authorities, insists on carrying out permanent reinstatement work. Such work should be carried out between six and nine months after the utility companies have completed the first part of the excavation process and carried out the temporary reinstatement. Regretably, that is not being done competently by my local council.

My inquiries to four of the main utility companies have revealed some fascinating statistics. Utility companies were cagey about giving me too much information. It was not because they did not want me to have the information, but because they were worried about the fact that it might sour their relationships with local councils. Nonetheless, I found out enough to know that something is wrong. I discovered that between £2.5 million and £3.5 million has not been claimed by Labour-controlled Kirklees council for permanent reinstatement work, which it should have carried out during the past four years. That is complacency on a grand scale, and it is resented by the utility companies, who find it unbelievably frustrating. They get much of the flak for the poor state of the roads in Kirklees but the major cause can be laid at the door of the council.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr.Dunnachie) said that the cause of the problem was that the Government did not provide enough money. I hope that he will accept that that is not the root cause. It is because local authorities, many Labour-controlled, have for many years been incompetent in carrying out permanent reinstatement work. The figures that I have given to the House this evening are an illustration of that fact.

Yet local Labour councillors in Kirklees are opposed to Professor Horne's recommendations, which are contained in the Bill. I realise that that contrasts with the views expressed by the Opposition Front Bench. Perhaps Kirklees Labour party is not as enlightened as they are. The only crumb of comfort—if one can call it that—for residents living in Kirklees is that the situation is almost as bad in other west Yorkshire highway authorities as it is in Kirklees, or at least that is what the utility companies have told me.

Recently, British Gas issued a paper suggesting that about £8.3 million is waiting to be collected by local authorities in the north-eastern region to carry out permanent reinstatement work. That is an indictment of many local authorities. In the paper which was released last November, British Gas said: The proposed legislation will benefit both British Gas and the public. It points out that £8.3 million is awaiting payment and that the legislation should lead to earlier completion of reinstatement work and, in some cases, lower costs for that work. It continues: Lower costs could come from the higher productivity stemming from new techniques, such as foamed concrete, pioneered in the North Eastern region", which incorporates Yorkshire.

Finally, the paper points out that British Gas anticipates reduced timescales for jobs using the new techniques and less inconvenience to road users. I am pleased that the Bill is before the House. Help is at hand for Kirklees residents because the Bill will end the present unsatisfactory arrangements. Utility companies will be fully responsible for total reinstatement of roads and the clearest standards covering the quality of work, specifications and workmanship will be laid down nationally. Work will be inspected and penalities will apply if it does not come up to scratch.

The fact that the law has been clarified at this stage is especially important because we are entering the era of cable television, as some of my hon. Friends have mentioned. Cable television provides an exciting prospect for the country, although we cannot minimise the disruption that will be caused to local people as pavements and roads are dug to lay the cable.

Last Thursday, when I was canvassing in the Ribble Valley constituency, I came across road works in a couple of streets in Preston where the cables for cable television were being laid. Local residents welcomed the fact that cable television would be available to them, but they were not enjoying the disruption caused to them in the meantime. While I am on the subject of Preston and the Ribble Valley, let me add that the Conservative candidate will undoubtedly win a handsome victory on Thursday, when the good people of Ribble Valley go to the polls.

Mr. Ian Bruce

Does my hon. Friend think that the people of Ribble Valley would be keen on the idea of a cable network providing direct input from this place? Mr. Evans would become a household name before long.

Mr. Riddick

I am a modest fellow. Tonight's debate has not been one of the most riveting, but of course, if people want to watch us, who am I to deny them that pleasure?

It is worth asking why some people in local government —for example, my local Labour councillors; and, let me point out to the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn), Liberal Democrat councillors—retain their hostility to the street works provisions. The hon. Member for Southport shakes his head; I can show him a press cutting that reports the Liberal Democrat representative on the highways committee as saying that the Horne report is wrong and should not be implemented. But perhaps that particular councillor is just a maverick.

I believe that there are two reasons for that hostility. First, there is the genuine and honourable concern about the quality of the work carried out by the utilities. I believe that the rigorous standards imposed by the Bill, plus the technical advances made by British Gas—for instance, the foam concrete—will prove those fears to be groundless. The second reason is less honourable: those arguing for the status quo do not want the local authorities' direct labour organisations to lose any work.

I am surprised and dismayed—and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister is listening to this part of my speech at least—by clause 90, which empowers local authorities to undertake street works. I presume that the aim is to enable the DLOs to make their services and expertise available to the utilities if they so wish. However, having seen how some local authorities have gone out of their way to undermine competitive tendering in other regards, and how they have attempted to keep those functions in-house, I believe that we should firmly close the door on the opportunity for that to happen here.

I would have expected my hon. Friend, who is one of the pioneers of competitive tendering in local government, to be the first to be concerned about clause 90. If he needs any convincing, he should note the welcome given to the clause by the hon. Member for West Bromwich. East (Mr. Snape). By all means let us allow these organisations to offer their services to the utility companies; but they should do so as private companies, not as DLOs. If they need time to change their status, let us by all means provide for a transitional period.

I know that two of my hon. Friends are keen to speak. Let me merely say that I welcome the Bill. It will take time for its provisions to be implemented, but there is light at the end of the tunnel for my constituents, who have had to put up with the appalling state of the roads in Kirklees for far too long. They are fed up with potholes. I strongly welcome the Bill.

9.3 pm

Mr. Ian Bruce (Dorset, South)

I did not intervene in the speech of the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson), who did not like having his leg pulled about the fact that the Labour party constantly harps on the need for good roads in its own localities while constantly criticising the Government's overall policy of increasing road building.

I used to live in Scotland. For three years, I lived by the beautiful River Tweed, and I assure Opposition Members that I shall vote for any measure that will ensure that Scotland has more good roads and that I can visit Scotland more often and more easily. None the less, it is absurd of the Labour party—and, indeed, the Liberal Democrats —to produce policy documents day after day that seem to suggest that good roads are not a good idea, and that we should restrict road building and spend all the money on public transport or on reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Mr. Home Robertson

The hon. Gentleman cannot be allowed to get away with his outrageous suggestion without quoting his source chapter and verse. Where on earth has the Labour party in Scotland said that it does not want to invest in the roads network?

Mr. Bruce

The hon. Gentleman talks as if the Labour party in Scotland is different from the Labour Front Bench.

Mr. Home Robertson

It is.

Mr. Bruce

I am glad to hear that it is. The Library has a file marked "Labour party policies". Of course, they are different from the policies of the Labour party in Scotland —and I do not know where the Scottish Labour party's policies are kept—but the hon. Gentleman should read that file. He will find that the Labour party has repeatedly attacked the Government's road investment plans.

There is ample evidence to suggest that more and better roads are needed and no evidence to suggest that the more roads one has, the more cars there will be. Many people are rightly concerned about carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and all the noxious gases that come out of the back of cars, and we want to reduce those emissions. However, there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that the worst pollution comes from stationary cars running their engines, and that roads allowing people to move from A to B are the best solution.

There is another important factor. Good roads—good links between urban centres—allow diversification. Jobs and trade and industry are kept out of city centres. At the last general election, I had the honour to vote for my hon. Friend the Member for Kirklees—I was one of his constituents.

Mr. Riddick

Colne Valley.

Mr. Bruce

I am sorry, Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick). My hon. Friend described the roads in Kirklees. He should come down to south Dorset for his holidays and have a look at the road network. There is only one trunk road in the whole of Dorset, let alone my constituency. We need greater investment. The bad road network has an effect on the economy of my area: it is the reason given by various companies, including the Ministry of Defence, for not siting jobs in my constituency. I hope that the Bill will result in greater investment in roads.

Having emphasised my positive attitude to increased road building, I ought to express my unhappiness with the Government's position on toll roads. It is all very well for my hon. Friend the Minister to say that toll roads would be additional. We all know very well what happens when one is trying to build a new road. If one is lucky, there is a single best route, and it is often difficult to find any sort of route. Once a toll road has been built in a particular area, the chances of the Government building their own road are more or less destroyed.

The road fund licence was rightly originally set up to provide for the user to pay for roads. In fact, we have gained far more from the road fund licence than is ever spent on roads. That balance should be redressed. The problem with toll roads is that one needs a large amount of financing in advance. That would be acceptable if it meant that, in some clever way, the Government were getting their roads built cheaply and quickly with a view eventually to taking them over. I rather believe, however, that the opposite will happen. Tolls cost a great deal to collect. That has been shown——

Mr. Home Robertson

indicated assent.

Mr. Bruce

I am glad that I am taking the hon. Member for East Lothian with me. Not only do tolls cost money to collect; their collection slows down the traffic. Take an extremely good road and stick a toll booth on it and one finds traffic jams occurring just when one is hoping to get the traffic moving through as quickly as possible.

Meanwhile, the money that one collects on a road comes long after one's investment in it. Our experience of toll bridges tells us that when one sets up a company and establishes a sinking fund, that fund simply gets larger and larger. The interest payments are not met by the tolls. If wonderful schemes can be found to overcome that, fair enough, but I believe that if we want more roads—and I certainly do—taxation is the way to achieve the aim. If we wish also to look after the environment, the most sensible course is to take the money from petrol tax. This should also reduce the consumption of petrol by making it more expensive and by persuading people to buy more fuel-efficient cars. I must give a thumbs down to the prospect of tolls, but with the proviso that if private enterprise can get rid of the problems that I have outlined, we should not prevent that from happening. As a free marketeer, I would support that.

It is extremely important that the Government are tackling the difficult problem of ensuring that roads are not dug up consecutively by different people. If two or three different utilities intend to carry out the same kind of work in the same place, it makes sense to use one excavation. That would reduce inconvenience, and the parts of the Bill that deal with that are extremely good. Making use of one excavation would also speed up reinstatements. We all want that to happen, but not if costs increase or if the process is slowed down.

The definition of emergency work in the Bill is too narrow. We should not exclude the unplanned breakdown repair. The Public Utilities Street Works Act 1950 defines emergency works which include works to restore loss of service and works to prevent substantial loss of utility. If a sewer has collapsed outside a house and sewage is backing up into someone's garden and beginning to flow around, that may not constitute a danger to life, but it is a danger to amenity.

What happens if a telephone cable becomes defective and there is a seven-day delay before someone can dig up the road to discover the problem? That cable may be connected to the telephone of the little old lady about whom hon. Members always talk or it may be connected to the stock exchange. Enormous problems can arise when telephone cables and other cables break down beneath roads.

Cable television lines will often carry telecommunications equipment. Many councils are against the installation of televison cables and there may be elements in the Bill that will allow councils to prevent the installation of such cables.

Recently, an old lead waterpipe from the road to my house split. We had to set up a temporary warning sign in the road so that our plumber could turn off the water to allow maintenance to be carried out on the pipe which was on my property. My road boundary is going to be pushed back. The stopcock used to be on my property 50 years ago, but over the years it has moved into the road. If that waterpipe breaks, as it is bound to do over the next 10 or 20 years, I would be unhappy to think that I had helped to pass a Bill that prevented emergency work from being carried out to reconnect a water supply to my property and leave my family high and dry. A council could impose a one-year ban on digging up a new road surface, but that should not be inflexible. We should be able to allow a new road to be broken into in certain circumstances.

We must also consider the way in which the street authority is defined in the Bill because there may be complications. For example most district councils in Dorset take the agency for the highway from the county council. It should be clear who should be keeping the records.

The question of the cost of the register to the councils is important, particularly when we are trying to keep down community charges. It is easy to say that the fees will pay for everything. However, an examination of the accounts of Weymouth and Portland will show that those councils are supposed to get full reimbursement from the highways authority, but they actually spend thousands of pounds more than they receive back from the county council. The planning department is also supposed to be reimbursed a massive amount for fees, but it costs the charge payers thousands of pounds to run the planning authority. It is important to ensure that we keep costs down and that we do not pass them on to the community charge payers.

This is a good Bill, and only some minor aspects need to be reviewed. I hope that they will be keenly considered in Committee. I support the Second Reading of the Bill.

9.15 pm
Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Bruce) referred to a toll bridge with a sinking fund which continues to sink. It seems obvious that he is talking about the Humber bridge which, as I remember, was commissioned by the then Labour Government just before the by-election in Hull, North. I recollect that the choice of that bridge, of course, bore no relationship to the election and was, of course, carefully funded by the Labour Government on transport and financial grounds. That is why the fund continues to sink. Perhaps we should note that, significantly, no prestige bridges are currently being built across the Ribble valley.

I shall confine my remarks to part III, which deals with street works in England and Wales. Street works have of late brought misery to many of my constituents. Five per cent. of the working population of Gravesham travel to work in London by road, almost entirely on the A2. Over the past two years they have suffered continual disruption —the hard shoulders have been put in; the road has been resurfaced in parts; the barriers have been built and renovated and the disused railway bridges at Pepper Hill near Northfleet have been removed. All this marvellous work is evidence of the Government's record road programme, but the resultant misery has made the improvement pill rather difficult for local people to swallow. For example, the recent removal of the disused railway bridges at Pepper Hill was programmed for January and February of this year. Winter is a dangerous time of year to restrict traffic lanes on major roads. What happens when one tempts fate? It snowed heavily. The traffic on the A2 was confined to two lanes and queues built up in the rush hour back to Scalers Hill in the east. Motorists coming westward came off the A2 at Marling Cross and pushed through the entire urban area of Gravesend and Northfleet, south of the old road.

Only last September, Gravesham borough council agreed its winter emergency plan with Kent county council. In the event, the traffic coming off the A2 went down side roads that were not prepared for salting or gritting, as main roads are. The result was chaos for my constituents in the residential areas of south Gravesend and Northfleet. I presume that the Department of Transport advised the local highways authority—Kent county council. Apparently, the county council did not advise its highways agent in the area—Gravesham borough council. The borough council has considerable highways experience in that area of the borough, so the population and Gravesham borough council had 10 days' notice of the works—from the date that the Department of Transport issued its press release. I understand that Kent county council is now taking steps to remedy that procedural failing.

The example highlights the importance of developing a computerised street works register to co-ordinate such works. The Department of Transport is to be congratulated on its initiative to fund such a development. The co-ordination of street works is vital off the motorways and trunk roads, because it is there that disruptive works by other public utilities are to be found.

Every hon. Member has his or her own horror stories. I have mine, but, in fairness, they have been minimised by the good relations between most public utilities and Gravesham borough council. The potential for continual or widespread disruption is immense.

Gravesham borough council, for example, decided to carry out smart repaving of the pedestrianised high street in front of the old town hall only to find that Seeboard, the local electricity company, planned to dig up the newly paved road to relay a high voltage cable. Fortunately, the borough council was able to reschedule its work until after the electricity board's work. On another occasion, British Telecom decided to dig up the Wrotham road in Gravesend. Almost simultaneously, British Gas decided to dig up the immediately parallel Windmill street. At a late stage, Gravesham borough council was notified and realised the impending effect on local traffic. It managed to encourage British Gas to delay and thus avoided chaos. In a more serious case, British Gas proposed to lay a new gas main right along the main traffic thoroughfare through the central shopping area of Gravesend. Gravesham borough council prevailed on British Gas to hold on so that a pedestrianisation experiment could be developed to take advantage of the inevitable major disruption.

In all those cases, advance co-ordination would have produced a mutually agreed works programme to minimise public inconvenience and the waste of resources. Voluntary co-ordination has had its successes, as shown by the Gravesham cases. The Bill will make a quantum leap in requiring adequate advance notification and giving statutory powers to the highway authorities to determine when such work can be carried out in a co-ordinated fashion.

All our constituents have bitter experiences of road works. Too often, the restoration of the pavements and road surfaces after repair—especially the interim temporary surfaces—has been done to a poor and uneven standard. All hon. Members know of cases of elderly constituents who have tripped and fallen over the bodged repairs. Too often, apparatus, equipment and supplies are left lying round creating a hazard. I am encouraged to see detailed clauses about the signposting, safety and supervision of street works which are vital if we are to make progress in this matter. This replacement for the Public Utilities Street Works Act 1950 is long overdue and thus very welcome. I look forward to supporting its passage through the House.

9.21 pm
Ms. Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

In opening the debate, the Minister of State was honest enough to acknowledge that the Bill contains two wholly disparate measures. It seems to be becoming a fashion with the Government. In the Road Traffic Bill, we dealt with road safety in part I and with the introduction of red route schemes in part II, with no obvious link. In this Bill, we find the uncontroversial and generally approved street works proposals combined with measures introducing private toll roads. Clearly, that is a strategy to get fringe schemes through the House on the back of sensible measures. I sympathise with the frustration of my right hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Mr. Oakes). In both cases, the controversial part of the Bill comes from the outer reaches of the Conservative party and is flashy in appearance, but lacking in strategy and substance.

The construction of parts I and II is a triumph of narrow ideology over common sense. It is, like the red routes, an example of a solution that is wholly inappropriate to the crisis. The Minister sought to argue that congestion was the link between the two sets of proposals. That was a superficial argument. He could just as easily have linked rail building proposals with the Bill if that were to be the justification.

I should have thought that the Minister would have learnt by now that he cannot depend on the private sector to improve our transport infrastructure because the private sector will not be persuaded or coerced into taking the role that should properly be played by central Government and public funds. We need look no further than the fiasco of the channel tunnel rail link to know that the Government should be investing in transport and building a proper planned network of rail and road and not hiving off bits of it and hoping that the private sector will pick up the pieces.

As my hon. Friends, without exception, have said, the Labour party has serious objections to parts I and II. Giving the green light to private roads is yet another example of a piecemeal policy and it will further hinder the development of the integrated transport strategy for which this country so desperately calls out. When new roads are to be built, they should be built on the basis of proven need. The Bill, however, seeks to encourage road building on the basis of opportunity for profit.

Mr. Jacques Arnold

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms. Ruddock

No, I shall not give way as the hon. Gentleman took up my time.

As the Government admit, the market will determine the construction of private roads. If enough people are willing to pay for new roads to avoid existing congestion, the Government will support the building of a private tolled road, irrespective of the effects on other transport planning or on residents in the area, or on broader strategic considerations.

Even more ludicrously, the Government's consultation paper, "New Roads by New Means", suggests that there is no way of saying in advance how many or which privately-financed toll roads would be viable. Only the open market can decide that, and once a tolled road is constructed, the market can decide whether it is a commercial success. That breathtaking assertion begs the question: supposing the road is not a commercial success? Will we have carved up thousands of acres of countryside just to let the market show that there is no demand for a toll road? The Government do not suggest that British Rail lay thousands of miles of track on the off-chance that the new route might be commercially successful. If they did, they could find that the market was very welcoming.

However, if the private road is successful and makes a profit, as the Select Committee on Transport noted, the consequence will be more roads than would otherwise be built under the public sector. We cannot treat our transport infrastructure like a brand of washing powder. Resources are too precious and the investment in infrastructure too great to be so cavalier.

In fairness to the Minister, I invite the Government to quantify the contribution to the relief of congestion to be made by private roads. He will be aware of his Department's prediction that road traffic will increase by between 83 and 142 per cent. by 2025. What percentage increase in this country's road space will derive from the building of private toll roads? If the Minister makes that calculation, he will know that there is no solution to the transport crisis faced in Britain other than Government investment in roads and public transport.

We are committed to investment in a proper infrastructure, including both road and rail. We do not rule out examining systems of charging, but they should be for the purpose of greater investment, not for making profit per se.

Mr. Ian Bruce

I have heard the hon. Lady say several times that the Government should pay. She will have heard what I said about not having toll roads, but instead increasing taxation on petrol. The Labour party constantly says that we should not finance roads by tolls. How much extra will Labour invest in roads?

Ms. Ruddock

I intend to deal with the hon. Gentleman's question as I continue my speech, so he should not interrupt me again.

We put concern for the environment, providing access and promoting the passage of people and goods at the heart of our policy, rather than private property. Nowhere do we say, as the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Bruce) said in his speech, that we oppose good roads. We have provided a critical analysis of the potential for increasing road space vis-a-vis the increase predicted in car ownership and use. That is a valid analysis. There is no way that the hon. Member for Dorset, South or any other Conservative Member can demonstrate that it is possible to concrete over sufficient tracts of British land to deal with the projected increases in road traffic. The Labour party is not against roads, but is in favour of an integrated transport system that gives proper emphasis to the environment and the provision of public transport and deals with congestion problems.

As my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) said, we are particularly concerned about the environmental consequences of parts I and II. It was obvious from the contribution of the hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. Coombs) that Conservative Members are, too, the moment that their constituents' interests are threatened. However, the Government's position remains unsatisfactory. The Minister says that private roads will be subject to the same environmental safeguards as public roads, but the current environmental assessment, carried out under the Highways Act 1980, is limited in scope and is not required to address the broader effects of roads on land use or the countryside.

I repeat what my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East said earlier. The Department's current road programme threatens more than 100 sites of special scientific interest, about 30 National Trust properties, numerous areas of outstanding natural beauty and the Peak District national park. That catalogue is hardly a recommendation of the environmental sensitivity of the Department of Transport.

Government assurances are insufficient and the concerns expressed to us by the Council for the Protecion of Rural England and others appear more than justified. In Committee, we intend to table amendments to ensure that environmental considerations are written into the contract between the concessionaire and the authority, and that concessionaires are required to meet the highest environmental standards. Without an explicit requirement to address the environmental impact, we fear that a concessionaire may not adequately fulfil those responsibilities.

We intend to deal with many other issues in Committee. We shall look carefully at land use issues and what safeguards will be available to prevent the exploitation of land by developers. The Minister must accept that when a road is being built for profit, the potential for profit must be maximised, which must involve a potential conflict between development plans, and planning and countryside protection policies.

We are also extremely concerned about the costs of policing the roads. We strongly believe that if a private developer is building a road for profit rather than need, the associated costs should be paid by the developer rather than the authority or, indirectly, by the poll tax payer.

We shall also voice our concerns about the secrecy of concessionaire agreements. At present, the contents of the agreement would be known only to the concessionaire and the highway authority—in most cases, the Secretary of State. Even the local authority would not know the terms of the agreement, which is clearly nonsense and against the public interest. We propose to tackle that problem in Committee.

We very much welcome the long overdue provisions in parts III and IV. I add my congratulations to the members of the highways, utilities and authorities committee working party, who have worked so long and hard during the past five years, and to Professor Horne, who wrote the report on which that section of the Bill is based. There is a great need for a flexible and modern system of organising street works to accommodate ever increasing amounts of traffic and increasing pressure by utilities. There is unanimous agreement that the old system, based on the Public Utilities Street Works Act 1950, was clumsy, bureaucratic and inconvenient. With 3 million holes being dug a year, street works have become a major factor in congestion and delays in cities.

Mr. Riddick

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms. Ruddock

No, I shall not give way because I shall run out of time.

The costs of congestion are estimated to be £15 billion a year and the cost of delay due to street works is put at £55 million a year. Clearly, it will benefit everyone, including business, to reduce that cost.

The Bill will depend, to a greater extent than usual, on regulations to implement its provisions. Therefore, it will be more adaptable to new circumstances and developments in technology. In this instance, we have no argument with that approach.

Mr. Riddick


Ms. Ruddock

I shall not give way.

We acknowledge that the Government accepted in another place the need for street authorities and utilities, when carrying out their duties, to have regard to the needs of people with disabilities, but we shall press in Committee for more specific undertakings. We shall also seek clarification of the implications that this part of the Bill will have for cyclists. We shall ask for cyclists to be given the same rights as pedestrians with regard to consultation on street works proposals. It is extremely important, we believe, that the needs of all vulnerable road users, including pedestrians, cyclists and people with disabilities, be given proper consideration.

Clause 70 causes us some concern, as, indeed, it gives rise for concern among other hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Whitney). This clause was not subject to the same extensive consultation under Home as was the rest of the Bill, and the utilities and street authorities are very concerned about its implications. In Committee, we shall follow that through. It is felt that the whole package is a delicately constructed balance between the interests of the utilities and those of the highway authorities, and the power to charge upsets that balance. We shall table an amendment to ensure that it is clearly understood that this is a reserve power only.

The Minister ended his speech by accusing Labour of seeking to raise taxes and to build fewer roads. He completely misses the point. We seek, and the Government should seek, to enable people and goods to be moved as efficiently as possible by the least environmentally damaging means. That is why we reject private toll roads. Government Members have provided no evidence that such road proposals will substantially relieve congestion, or that they will aid freight movement, or that they will not have a serious and damaging impact on the environment. As my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), in what was undoubtedly the most exciting and pertinent speech of the debate, said, the Bill appears to be an elaborate joke. The commercial advantages of private toll roads have not been demonstrated and fundamental questions have been left unanswered. I trust that the Minister will respond positively to the challenge that my hon. Friend's remarks set for him.

In combining two measures, the Government have put at risk our co-operation. Only our eagerness to see the very worth while and much-overdue measures arising from the Horne report implemented prevents us from pushing this matter to the vote. However, I promise the Government that they cannot expect such an easy passage in Committee.

Mr. Speaker

I call Mr. Chope.

Mr. Riddick

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I have not heard anything that is out of order.

Mr. Riddick

Perhaps you could clear something up for me, Sir. As the Minister was due to start his speech at 9.40, the hon. Lady had all the time in the world to give way to me. This is supposed to be a debate.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady decided not to give way, and I have now called the Minister.

9.38 pm
The Minister for Roads and Traffic (Mr. Christopher Chope)

We have had a good debate, although at times it has been somewhat low key. It is symptomatic of the Opposition's performance that they have convictions about the issue of transport but do not have the courage of their convictions. That will be reflected in what happens later.

I am very grateful for the constructive and supportive contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry), Wycombe (Mr. Whitney), Swindon (Mr. Coombs), Erith and Crayford (Mr. Evennett), Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick), Dorset, South (Mr. Bruce) and Gravesham (Mr. Arnold). They have added to the debate a quality that will be much appreciated.

I shall deal first with the part of the Bill that concerns street works. I welcome the general support on both sides of the House for parts III and IV of the measure. We believe that the provisions in these parts will be widely welcomed in the country, and will lead to better planned and better executed street works. The outdated procedures prescribed by the Public Utilities and Street Works Act 1950 no longer serve their purpose. Let me give one example. The requirement to serve notices in writing on all the authorities involved before starting work results in unnecessary bureaucracy, with some 4 million holes each year being subject to the requirements of the 1950 Act.

The present framework is seriously inadequate when it comes to the state of repair of roads. The 1950 Act allows highway authorities to elect to do the permanent reinstatement of the upper levels of the roads themselves at a utility's expense. No time limit is laid down for the highway authority to carry out the reinstatement in those cases. As a result, temporary reinstatements done by utilities are often left for far too long in a totally unsatisfactory condition, a point made vividly by my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley and others. Labour-controlled authorities have a lot to answer for. In Kirklees, not only is there money available from the utilities for the repair of the holes in roads, but there is also a substantial amount of money available through the standard spending assessment to be invested in highway maintenance. It is clear from what my hon. Friend said that that investment is not being made.

As we have heard, the Bill will remove the confusion and unnecessary bureaucracy involved in the present arrangements for street works. It will allow the introduction of clear national standards on matters such as the signing and guarding of works, the training of those involved in works and the quality of reinstatement of roads by utilities. For the first time it will allow the effective co-ordination of street works activity.

Various points of detail have been raised in the debate. I cannot answer them all, but I shall try to deal with some. One issue concerned the definition contained in clause 54, which was referred to by several hon. Members. Parts III and IV of the Bill regulate all works in streets in England and Wales and roads in Scotland, and both terms include the footway, or what the man in the street would call the pavement. Particular attention will be paid to the needs of pedestrians and other vulnerable road users when detailed requirements are prescribed under the Bill. I hope that that is of interest to hon. Members.

There were comments about emergency works. To put the provisions in context, it is worth reminding the House that the Horne committee found that 35 per cent. of all works notified were notified as emergency works. That was based on the evidence of local authorities given in 1983. That showed the extent of the abuse. In many cases a majority of the works carried out in individual council areas were deemed to be emergency works. Therefore, a new definition is called for. In order to be workable, it has to be a tight definition.

Because of the exemptions given for emergency works, which clause 48 limits to the avoidance of danger to persons or to property, there will be cases falling short of emergencies where an undertaker has to take action before the normal period of advance notice has expired. Some examples have been given in the debate. In some cases, such as the restoration of a supply or service, or works necessary to avoid substantial loss to an undertaker, considerably shorter advance notice requirements may be appropriate. After further consultations with highway authorities and utilities, suitable provision will be made in regulations containing the notice requirements.

Points were raised about charging for the occupation of road space. I assure the House that it is not the Government's intention to bring the power into effect straight away. We have said that we would prefer to wait to see how the other controls operate. It is a reserve power, but nevertheless a useful power, because it is a reminder to utilities that associated with the works which they carry out is a cost to the public and to the road user in time wasted and inconvenience. In the same way as lane rental has been successful in road contracts, the power to charge for occupation or road space will concentrate minds well.

Mr. Simon Coombs

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said. Do the Government intend to introduce a system of charging for all undertakers, if one undertaker has failed significantly to deliver, in the early period after the introduction of the legislation? In other words, will all undertakers be punished by the system of fee paying if only one is found to be seriously at fault?

Mr. Chope

The Government would look at that issue from the point of view of the consumer and the road user. If it is clear that there are abuses, we shall wish to implement the powers contained in the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Swindon also referred to the opening of streets. That can include lifting a manhole cover, which could be quite disruptive in the middle of a busy carriageway. However, it will be possible to make suitable exemptions from the requirements of the Bill for such street works, where necessary.

The right hon. Member for Halton (Mr. Oakes) referred to bringing proceedings for offences. The 1950 Act confined the ability to bring proceedings for an offence subject to a criminal penalty to an authority, body or person having an interest in the performance of the obligation in question. We think that it is right that the Bill should not limit enforcement of the street works provision in the same way because some of the duties in the Bill, such as the duty of undertakers to co-operate or the duty to avoid unnecessary obstruction, are not owed to particular authorities or persons but are of a general nature. In those circumstances, it would not be appropriate to limit the ability to bring proceedings for breach of a statutory obligation to particular interested persons.

My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley made an interesting point when he questioned the provisions of clause 90. I am sure that we shall return to that issue in Committee because, as presently drafted, there is effectively an exemption to the local authority goods and services legislation. I am sure that my hon. Friend and others will need a lot of convincing that this Bill should contain such a provision.

Parts I and II deal with new roads and private finance. I am not really surprised that the Opposition have been reluctant to give support or enthusiasm to those provisions because they are, after all, radical proposals. They break the long tradition in this country of roads being paid for by the taxpayer or the charge payer rather than by the user. In recent months and years, we have found that the Opposition never take kindly to fresh, imaginative and radical thinking.

The Government are not alone in seeing the private sector as a likely source of finance for the roads of the future. The signs are that in many European countries, and in many parts of the United States of America, the same policies are being developed—not only in countries such as France, Italy and Spain, which have a long history of tolled motorways, but in more surprising places such as Germany and the new democracies in eastern Europe. By daring to challenge the conventional wisdom, once again this Government are pointing the way forward to the rest of the world.

We have no intention of abandoning the traditional public sector roads programme. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman) has said, trunk road expenditure is now at record levels, but even the greatly expanded programme that we introduced in "Roads for Prosperity" will leave many demands unmet. The public purse is not bottomless, and all the money in it comes from taxpayers and charge payers.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood)

As my hon. Friend knows, the Birmingham northern relief road will be the first private motorway in Britain and a large part of it will pass through my constituency. I warmly welcome both that private sector road and the measures in the Bill that will assist that process. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the new arrangements that are proposed in the Bill will speed up the process of bringing private roads into being, and can he assure me that the Birmingham northern relief road is very much on target for opening in the mid- 1990s?

Mr. Chope

Certainly, the Birmingham orthern relief road is very much on target for opening in the mid-1990s——

Mr. Snape

In a private moment, perhaps the Minister will point out to his hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth) that that matter was discussed earlier in a fair amount of detail. Furthermore, the Birmingham northern relief road first appeared in the Government's road programme in 1980, but it is still no nearer commencement. If the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood had been present for just one moment of this debate instead of strolling into the Chamber 11 minutes before it will end, he would know those basic and simple facts.

Mr. Chope

I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth) has been serving on a Committee elsewhere in the House and that that is why he has been unable to participate in this debate.

I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government have no interest in going slow on the Birmingham northern relief road and we hope to be able to announce the successful tenderer in May. There has been a slight delay because of today's announcement that the western orbital route will be subject to private tender and it is right that the tenderers for the Birmingham northern relief road should have a chance to consider whether they wish to adjust their tenders as a result.

Mr. Ian Bruce

Opposition Members were keen to say that neither in "Looking to the future" nor in "An earthly chance" does the Labour party have a policy which suggests that it is anti-road. It is not suggesting that more money will come from the taxpayer or the Government for more roads; it is saying that it wants to see money switched from roads to public transport. It is difficult to get firm policies, but in its transport policy the Labour party says: The Roads White Paper will be reviewed. Road and public transport developments will be assessed on a common basis". That suggests that it will switch from roads to public transport.

Mr. Chope

My hon. Friend is right. The kindest thing that one can say about the Opposition's policy is that it is muddled. My evidence for saying that is that about last autumn the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), whose presence is sorely missed today, announced that the Opposition's policy was to transfer resources which were to be spent on the roads programme to rail and other forms of infrastructure investment. The hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock) is nodding in agreement.

On 18 May 1989, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East, responding to the roads White Paper, said: We welcome the Government's acceptance of the fact that the economic and social cost to the nation of chronic congestion is such that urgent action in the form of a doubling of present road expenditure is needed."—[Official Report, 18 May 1989; Vol. 153, c. 484.] There is much evidence to suggest that the Opposition want it both ways. They want to suggest to their friends in their constituencies who want new investment in roads that such investment would continue under a Labour Government while at the same time suggesting to their friends in British Rail that even the record amount being invested by this Government in British Rail will be exceeded at no additional cost to the taxpayer under a Labour Administration.

There has been much discussion about whether the new road schemes and procedures would be any quicker than the existing procedures. The Government hope that they will be quicker and we believe that we have reasonable grounds for expecting that. Unlike the private sector, the Government are unable to dedicate resources to any one particular scheme, so that it can take time to reach inquiry. The promoter of a scheme will have a strong incentive in the form of profit to undertake the necessary preparatory work as quickly as possible. The private sector may choose to buy land on a voluntary basis at above market value if it were in the longer term interest of the project. That is something that the public sector cannot do. Therefore, the overall procedure could well be quicker. All those who want a quicker implementation of the roads programme are in tune with public demand.

The Government have already made substantial progress, but it is apparent that we need even greater investment in roads and there is no way in which all the necessary money will be forthcoming from the taxpayer. One vivid example of my proposition that it is better to have a toll road than no road is the Skye bridge, referred to by the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson). The Scottish Office is currently evaluating tenders from the three consortia, and it is hoped that the winner of the competition will be announced in April.

Subject to the enactment of the Bill and the satisfactory completion of statutory procedures, the bridge could be completed during 1994. By comparison, a bridge could not be provided from public funds for perhaps 20 years or more without displacing other worthwhile projects which are already in the public progamme. Therefore, the local community will be able to enjoy all the benefits of a fixed link much earlier than would otherwise be the case.

Ms. Ruddock

Time is running out and I am anxious to ensure that the Minister does not fail to answer the question that I put to him. It is important that we hear from him tonight what increase in Britain's road space he envisages from the provision of private toll roads. How does that compare with the increases in road traffic, as predicted by his Department?

Mr. Chope

I am sure that there will be plenty of time in Committee to deal with the hon. Lady's question and similar questions.

There are those who claim that the private sector does not have the competence to carry out the task which we shall ask it to undertake under the legislation, that it is in it only to make a quick buck, or that it will have no regard to safety or the environment. One might say that those are the same old tawdry arguments that the Opposition have used against every private sector initiative that the Government have introduced. However, compared with the Government's major privatisation and deregulation measures, the measures that we have debated tonight are relatively modest.

We are not selling off motorways or privatising the highway authorities, although some of my hon. Friends believe that we should do just that. The private consortia will derive their powers from the highway authority. The highway authority will be answerable for authorisation of the route, for its environmental impact and for its compatibility with other land use objectives. The concessionaires' role will be to raise the finance, design and build the road and operate and maintain it once it is open. That is very much the role of the toll-operating concessionaires in continental Europe, except that we propose fully private sources of finance and to take free market principles a step or two further.

It has been suggested that the measures can be implemented only at the expense of the environment. That is absolute nonsense. The new roads to be promoted by private entrepreneurs will be subject to just the same planning and inquiry regime as the existing roads programme. I was asked whether these new roads would attract development. Almost every new road attracts development, but it is up to the local authorities, the planning authorities and ultimately the planning inspectorate to decide whether a planning application should be successful.

Indeed, when putting forward their proposals for the new east coast road recently, several local authorities relied to a great extent on private sector developers to help finance the cost of the road. The hon. Member for Deptford nods in agreement. Clearly, she believes that that is a reasonable way to proceed.

Ms. Ruddock


Hon. Members


Ms. Ruddock

I am sorry, but that cannot pass. I said to the Minister tonight that clearly a conflict can arise if a company seeks to maximise profit. A conflict can arise in the land use proposals. We are all too familiar with the fact that local authorities' objections are frequently overturned by the Department.

Mr. Chope

They are not frequently overturned, but when they are overturned, it is done on good planning grounds. That is because the Department has to operate in a quasi-judicial capacity. If it did not act properly, it would find itself on the wrong end of a High Court challenge.

In conclusion, I remind the House of the massive investment which the Government will continue to make in the road infrastructure in Britain. Capital spending on roads has more than doubled since the last year of the Labour Government. Progress on new construction, trunk roads and motorways is extremely good. By the end of the current financial year we shall have completed some 40 schemes, adding some 140 miles of new or improved roads to the national network in 12 months. We shall also have started 54 schemes with a length of over 150 miles. We plan to maintain that record level of progress next year when we shall start work on a further 53 new schemes, including three motorway widenings and 19 bypasses, covering some 172 miles. When the Bill is approved, even more investment in our road infrastructure will be facilitated.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills).