HC Deb 22 May 1991 vol 191 cc1026-32

Amendments made: No. 25, in page 141, line 36, at end insert—

'1985 c. 67. Transport Act 1985. In section 137(1), the definition of "trunk road".

No. 26, in page 141, line 40, at end insert—

'1988 c. 52. Road Traffic Act 1988. In section 22A(3)(c)(i), the words "section 8 of the Public Utilities Street Works Act 1950".'.—Mr. Freeman.]

Order for Third Reading read.—[Queen's Consent, on behalf of the Crown, and Prince of Wales's Consent, on behalf of the Duchy of Cornwall, signified].

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

8.54 pm
Ms. Ruddoclk

I do not propose to detain the House for long. However, I want to place on the record the stage that we have reached in this Third Reading. We remain fundamentally and implacably opposed to the private toll road programme, and we do not intend to implement that programme when we are in government—something that we expect to happen soon.

However, we are grateful to the Minister for having taken account of the many amendments and new clauses that we and others tabled in Committee. They have brought the procedures for private toll roads—should they ever be used—into a better form. There will be more accountability and more reporting in the public arena. More justice and fairness will be brought to bear on that procedure should it ever be used.

I recall the comments made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson). Clearly it is to the detriment of the people of Skye that the only opportunity for their island to be joined to the mainland lies in the procedures in this legislation. It is our wish and it is undoubtedly theirs that they should have that modern infrastructure provided without recourse to a privately built and tolled road.

There was much greater harmony on the second half of the Bill. The consensus has been reached after many years of hard work by the civil servants in the Department of Transport in meeting constantly, listening to and taking advice from representatives of the local authority associations and the utilities who, in their turn, have provided Opposition Members with much important information and assistance in drafting amendments which at their behest we tried to use to improve the Bill.

I am glad to say that part II of the Bill has been substantially improved. We now know that we have perhaps the best possible regime in terms of improving the quality and speed with which street works are undertaken in this country. Poorly executed street works have been and are a major danger to pedestrians, cyclists and those who drive cars and public service vehicles. They are all inconvenienced, and there is often huge congestion and a variety of problems which the Bill seeks to end. We are glad about that, and we had hoped to conclude tonight's proceedings with real harmony.

Unhappily, that harmony was ended by Government support for a completely unnecessary amendment that has removed from local authorities the possibility of their undertaking street works on behalf of the utilities. That measure was not only completely unnecessary but unwarranted. It suggests that local authorities and their direct labour organisations are not worthy of holding contracts for that work. We cannot agree with that measure and, in government, will not implement it.

I thank the Ministers for the co-operation that has been afforded to us, for notes during our proceedings, and for the meetings that the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman) offered us, which we were glad to have.

The Bill will now provide for immense improvements for safety and convenience on our highways. For that we are most grateful. However, we remain opposed to private building and to toll roads funding, as mentioned in parts I and II, in any part of England and Wales and particularly in Scotland, with reference to the Skye road bridge. We expect to be in government before too long. We will not allow those private toll roads to be built.

8.59 pm
Mr. Fearn

I also welcome the Bill. Unfortunately, in Committee and on Second Reading, the Minister did not accept that the skill of management of Government has been used to bring two parts of the Bill together—one popular and one unpopular. The unpopular part relates to toll roads, with which we agree in principle, but which has many environmental problems. The second part of the Bill, which relates to street works, was agreed by most hon. Members, and very little controversy arose. We certainly now have a Bill that considers most people, but perhaps it should consider motor cyclists and cyclists even more.

With those few words, I hope that the Bill has a speedy passage and is on the statute book before long.

9 pm

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

I join in congratulating both sides of the House on getting at least the agreed parts of the Bill into good order. I also congratulate those who worked on the Horne committee and those who worked in the National Joint Utilities group for many years—rather more years than they would have wished. It is quite clear that this measure will lead to greater efficiency, effectiveness and economy. In time, many people should see the benefits of it.

I disagree with the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock). The idea of direct labour organisations would be greeted with horror in the London borough of Greenwich, where my constituency is. On inspection, it turned out that the direct service organisation, the equivalent of what the hon. Lady was talking about, managed to make not a 5 per cent. return on capital, which is demanded of it, but a loss of 186 per cent. That £2 million loss a year would have been £3 million without drastic management action.

Such a loss cannot be afforded by the highway authorities which look after 96 per cent. of our roads. It is important that we try to achieve cost-effectiveness in carrying out work as well as a system that works.

Ms. Ruddock

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bottomley

I do not want to give way to the hon. Lady, as it may lead to a debate that perhaps should have taken place earlier.

Ms. Ruddock

Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Mr. Bottomley

I shall give way if the hon. Lady insists.

Ms. Ruddock

I am sorry to insist, but I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was here when we debated the clause to which I referred and in respect of which disharmony occurred. I said that the amendment was unnecessary. The clause allows only the possibility of a local authority tendering for work. It did not in any way give any benefit to a local authority, other than saying that it was not prohibited from being involved. The hon. Gentleman's points bear no relevance to the debate on clause 90 and the amendment to it.

Mr. Bottomley

The hon. Lady does not understand how much I know about national and local arrangements. Greenwich has acted as agent for the Department. If Greenwich was able to act as an agent for utilities as well, and if it was able to conceal its losses so that nursery classes, pavements, libraries and swimming pools went, to take the £2 million out of the accounts because it lost on its road works and white line painting, I am fully justified in making my remarks. If the hon. Lady refers to my remarks when the Official Report is published, she might tell other Labour authorities that we cannot afford their inefficiencies.

The street works proposal is very important. I hope that we shall see vast improvements so that all those who use our roads, whether on foot or on wheels, benefit.

9.3 pm

Mr. Haynes

It is a great pleasure to follow an ex-Transport Minister. He is talking differently from how he talked when he was at the Dispatch Box. He has changed his quarter or his corner, has the hon. Gentleman. I do not agree with him at all. I used to agree with him sometimes in the early hours of the morning. He used to bring orders in the early hours of the morning and keep us out of bed, but we were interested in transport, and road safety in particular.

Here we go again. The Government are at it again. They do not like the public sector but they love the private sector, because of the profit motive.

I believe that local authorities have done a marvellous job over the years, so why should they be criticised? The hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) criticised his local authority a few moments ago—the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) was not even here.

Mr. Riddick

His council's incompetence is even greater than my council's incompetence.

Mr. Haynes

I have really done it now.

Mr. Riddick

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Haynes

No. Sit down. I have not finished what I was saying. I may not be in the Chair, but I have the Floor. I did not realise that I would get the hon. Members for Eltham and for Colne Valley at each other's throats. The hon. Member for Colne Valley has the opportunity to make a speech, if he wants to criticise a former Transport Minister. The hon. Gentlemen are arguing between themselves when they have not even been called from the Chair.

Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

They are trying to wind you up.

Mr. Haynes

I do not want any sarcasm from Selly Oak, either. The hon. Gentleman will get awkward in a minute or two, and we will have to deal with him. [Laughter.] The hon. Gentleman may laugh, but he will be dealt with.

Mr. Beaumont-Dark

I surrender.

Mr. Haynes

I think that the hon. Gentleman should surrender now, and go. We do not want any difficulty after the debate.

When the hon. Member for Colne Valley spoke to an earlier amendment, I could not help intervening. As I said then, I am a cyclist. I like cycling. We spend so much time in this place sitting down, and people need exercise. Many Members go to the gymnasium to exercise, but I exercise on my bike. Many a night when we have knocked off at the House late at night or in the early hours of the morning, I have passed you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, going to your London residence. I am on my bicycle trying to keep an eye on you, and on the road, and on the traffic. That is difficult in this area of Westminster.

I do not cycle very far: I am only 15 minutes away—15 wonderful minutes on my bicycle—but that is enough for me to know how appalling the road conditions are round here. Yet Ministers from the Prime Minister downwards stand at the Dispatch Box bragging about Wandsworth and Westminster and all the things they do so cheaply. I know that Westminster council does things cheaply, because I have to cycle along dodging potholes in the blinking road, with traffic all over the damn place, and I have to watch where I am going. It is very difficult.

Back home, we have a first-class local authority. I am glad that the Secretary of State for Transport is listening, so that I can tell him that my local county council does a first-class job looking after the roads. If it spends a little too much, it is criticised, but the money is spent in the interests of road safety, in consultation with many organisations, including the police. The hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo) knows about the consultation that takes place about roads.

A marvellous ring road was built in my constituency, with a cycle track. That is what the Government ought to encourage. Ministers often tell us that people should cycle more, and if they did so, more Raleigh cycles from Nottingham would be sold. That would be good for business and for the people who rode the cycles. But we need proper facilities to be able to cycle.

The hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn) mentioned motor cyclists. Motor cycling is another aspect of cycling. My county council puts a cycle track beside its new roads. I wish that Ministers would order all county councils to do the same; then we might get somewhere. There are far too many cars on the road.

Not all that long ago, I was lucky enough to be in China. I heard the arguments about the Hong Kong business, the airport and the roads to the new airport. I saw many people cycling. They were as fit as fiddles. They could work any number of hours because they were fit from cycling. We ought to encourage more and more people to cycle in Britain, because we need facilities for cyclists.

I should like to see the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark) on a bicycle. If he had been on a bicycle, that rottweiler probably would not have attacked him. I was sorry for the hon. Gentleman when it happened, but at the same time I agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) when he wanted to know if the dog was all right.

I have said my piece. I hope that the Treasury Bench—[Interruption.] I do not know why the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton), is laughing. It is a serious matter. I hope that the Scottish Minister has taken what I have said on board, because they cycle up in Scotland. We should provide proper facilities. I beg the Treasury Bench to do something about the problem and to order local authorities, when they plan to extend major roads and ring roads, to include proper facilities for cyclists.

I plead on behalf of cyclists because there are a lot of us. Many organisations support cyclists. I hope that the Treasury Bench will do so. I do not need to say any more. I have made my appeal in the hope that at least the Government have listened.

9.11 pm
Mr. Bowis

Before I ask the hon. Member for Ashheld (Mr. Haynes) for a lift home on the back of his bike, I wish the Bill well, with two brief comments. The first is on part I. In Committee, we spent a great deal of time talking about the environment. I wish the Bill well in the hope that it will provide an opportunity for the environment. Environmental groups may in future be able to advance their own ideas for a private road into which they put their own resources to avoid some of the problems that they have come across. I am thinking of Twyford Down and other places where there could be a real opportunity for the future.

My second comment is on part II. I welcome the opportunity that it will give to my constituents and other people in the inner cities who have sat in traffic jams behind road works or had problems in walking along the pavements, or whose cycle has become stuck in a rut caused by road works. Those problems will be put right. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman). He has steered the Bill through often by coming to see a problem. Having seen it, he has often come back with a solution.

9.12 pm
Mr. Simon Coombs

I follow my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) by congratulating and thanking my hon. Friend the Minister, who has steered the Bill through with understanding and concern. We had some excellent debates on road safety in Committee. I hope that all those involved will accept the importance attached by all those who served on the Committee and by other hon. Members to enhancing road safety through some of the measures in the Bill.

The Bill should be good for road users. For those who drive motor cars, there should be fewer humps and hollows to impede their progress and destroy their cars. For cyclists, there should be greater safety, not just because the surface of the roads will be improved. Some of the changes made in Committee will improve the chances that cyclists will find their way unimpeded. There are also benefits for pedestrians. Which of us has not had letters from pedestrians in our constituencies who have fallen down holes in the road or tripped over uneven pavements created by the poor quality of reinstatement of street works in the past?

All the people whom I have mentioned should benefit from the Bill, and I hope that they will do so. I also welcome parts I and II of the Bill. They provide an opportunity for a new capital input into road building in Britain. That should generate better traffic flow in parts of the country where it is badly needed and therefore help to generate greater prosperity and assist industries which depend on the movement of goods by road for their well-being.

I agree also with what has been said in this short Third Reading debate about the importance of ensuring that those responsible for new roads—indeed, all roads—take properly into account the need to preserve the environment, whenever and wherever that is possible.

Before my hon. Friend concludes this brief debate, may I ask him to tell the House when he expects the new regime introduced by the Bill to come into force. Many people will want to know the answer to that question. They are looking forward to the day when our labours on the Bill are brought to fruition. I have no doubt that it will greatly benefit all the people of this country.

9.14 pm
Mr. Freeman

I thank the members of the Committee for their very hard work in Committee This is a workmanlike Bill. I also thank the officials and those outside Parliament who—rightly, constitutionally and perfectly properly—lobbied for and against the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) played a leading role, in terms of the second part of the Bill, in accepting on behalf of the Government the Horne committee's recommendations. Both he and the whole House will now see those provisions on the statute book—I hope very shortly. For those who use our roads and highways, it will mean both safer and more expeditious use of carriageways and footways.

There is a sharp difference of opinion between the Opposition Front Bench and the Government on toll roads. We shall bring into force the toll road provisions as quickly as possible, as well as the other provisions dealing with street works. The hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock) gave notice that the Opposition would not bring into effect parts I and II by cancelling projects such as the Skye bridge, the Birmingham northern relief road and the western orbital road. That is the implication of what the Opposition propose to do. Either they will have to increase taxation to pay for those projects or they will have to cancel other parts of the road programme.

I commend the Bill to the House. I know that, apart from those legitimate areas of political discord, it does a service to the people of this country. Parliament has done its work well.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, with amendments.