HC Deb 20 February 1992 vol 204 cc561-7

Amendment proposed, No. 38, in page 34, line 34, after `to', insert `(a)'.—[Mr. McLoughlin.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 39, Government amendment No. 7, in page 34, line 35, leave out from 'practicable' to end and insert 'either—

  1. (a) to improve the safety of the public at the crossing; or
  2. (b) to divert the path or way; or
  3. (c) to replace the crossing with a bridge or tunnel.'.
No. 8, in page 34, line 40, at end insert— 'and showing the alternative highways which run between the ends of that part of the path or way being stopped up'. No. 9, in page 34, line 40, at end insert— '(5A) Where an order made under this section or under section 119A below has been confirmed, the highway authority may erect, and maintain for a period not exceeding ten years, such signs as it considers expedient for informing the public of the closure of the crossing of the railway line; and, before making an order under his section or section 119A below at the request of a railway operator, a council may require the operator to enter into an agreement with them or with the highway authority to defray, or to make such contribution as may be specified in the agreement towards, the expenses incurred by the highway authority in providing and maintaining such signs.'. Government amendments Nos. 40 to 42.

No. 11, in page 35, line 26, leave out from 'practicable' to end and insert 'either—

  1. (a) to improve the safety of the public at the crossing; or
  2. (b) to replace the crossing with a bridge or tunnel.'.

No. 12, in page 35, line 34, at end insert, 'and which is substantially as safe and convenient to the public'. Government amendments Nos. 44 to 45.

Mr. Fearn

I refer to amendments Nos. 7, 8, 9, 11 and 12. In Committee, on 21 January the Minister said that he accepted the principle of what was then the last part of new clause 1. That would enable the Secretary of State to direct the railways board to provide a tunnel or bridge if he or she believed that there was no other way of making the crossing safe. The Minister also stated that grants would be given to ensure that crossings were as safe as possible. I welcome both statements. However, the Minister also said: It is important that costs be kept low".—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 21 January 1992; c. 294.] We should recognise that, above all else, our amendment deals with safety. I do not believe that any expense should be spared to make crossings as safe as possible, especially when protecting human life. However, the years of continuous neglect under Governments of differing complexions will make it difficult to meet all safety costs in one go. Nevertheless, that should not be an excuse not to attempt any improvement.

An additional benefit to be gained from my amendment is that it specifically lists alternatives to closure of a path. I further believe that pedestrians' rights should be considered equally in regard to road and rail. The amendment would put the rights of pedestrians affected by road and rail alterations on an equal footing. In Committee, the Minister stated that the Government would table their own amendment on the issue, but I hope that he is willing to accept my amendment in the belief that it is a reasonable step forward which may save lives.

Amendment No. 8 aims to improve security and scrutiny of any rail extinguishment order. The Bill requires that the plan should show the path which is being stopped up. The amendment would ensure that users could clearly see what alternative routes would have to be used if the order was confirmed. The measure would enable potential footpath users to pass judgment on the relative safety and convenience of alternatives to the existing plan.

Support for any measure that places information in the hands of local people should be maintained within the House. That is the purpose behind the amendment, and it is my aim that it should be achieved at no cost. I look forward to the Minister's reply.

Amendments Nos. 11 and 12 deal with safety. As all five amendments that I have mentioned deal with safety, perhaps the Minister will spend some time telling us what we can conclude from the fact that safety is not mentioned that often and is not mentioned in his amendment.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

I also support the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn) and me. They have been sent in by the Ramblers Association. I am aware that the Minister has given some assurances to the rights of way review committee that he will try to meet many of its points by means of regulations. I hope that he will reinforce those assurances when he replies and will deal with at least some of the specific problems.

First, where a closure takes place and an alternative route is proposed, it is important that local people know what the alternative is. They must be able to examine it and see whether it uses roads. We must ensure that, when we divert people away from a dangerous railway level crossing, we do not simply divert them to a section of dangerous road where there is equal hazard. It is important that local people know not only that the crossing will be closed but what the alternative will be. If a closure is approved, it is important that proper signs are provided to show that the route has been closed and the alternative route.

The Minister will realise that many people who go out walking use ordnance survey maps. Although it would be nice if maps were kept up to date, that is not always the practice. Today I walked down to the London map centre near Victoria and looked through three or four of the maps on sale. I looked especially at the outdoor leisure map for the Conwy valley. It is based on a map that was produced in a provisional series for the 1920s. Major revisions have been made since, but some of the footpaths go back to that era. The forestry activities in the area have made some of the paths impossible to follow. If someone is working with a map which may be five, six or more years out of date in an area where a level crossing has been closed and an alternative route provided, it is important that the route is clearly described.

I hope that the Minister will spell out the duties on a local authority which approves a closure to ensure that there are adequate signs to show that the crossing has been closed. Obviously, a crossing will be closed only if it is dangerous, so it is important that people do not use it and that the alternative is clearly signed and marked. I hope that the Minister can give that assurance and confirm that, at a further meeting with the Rights of Way Review Committee, he will give assurances that the regulations will meet the points that the committee has made.

Mr. McLoughlin

If I may begin with the last point first, I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will meet the Rights of Way Review Committee and try to meet any outstanding points.

The Government amendments seek to deal with concerns raised in Committee and in our consultations with the rights of way review committee that the provisions in schedule 2 on rail crossing extinguishment and diversion orders did not include a power enabling councils to recover the costs of erecting any signs or barriers in connection with the orders.

Part of amendment No. 39 and amendment No. 42 require the council or the Secretary of State to take into account arrangements for the placing and maintaining of appropriate signs and barriers when confirming a rail crossing extinguishment or diversion order. The second part of amendment No. 39 and amendment No. 44 enable the council to require the railway operator to enter into an agreement to recover in part or in whole the cost of erecting and maintaining barriers and signs before making a rail crossing extinguishment or diversion order.

The enabling powers for erecting signs on public paths and ways are contained in the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984. Draft regulations prescribing the size, colour and nature of the signs will be prepared. In the case of an extinguishment order, the intention is that a sign capable of being retained for a period of 10 years will be placed at the intersection of the extinguished path or way and other paths or ways warning users that the path or way shown on the ordnance survey map has been closed.

The other amendments tabled by my right hon. and learned Friend are consequential tidying up provisions.

I commend the amendments to the House. They have the support of the Rights of Way Review Committee, and I am sure that they will be of real practical value when paths or ways crossing railways have to be stopped up or diverted on safety grounds.

The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) should not get too carried away because safety measures are not mentioned in the Bill. The ethos underlying it is to try to help and to have proper regard for safety matters. He makes too much of saying that safety is not on the face of the Bill.

I hope that Opposition Members will not press amendment No. 9, on the basis that it is less comprehensive than ours. It does not, for example, include the provision of barriers.

Turning to the other amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn) and the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish, amendments Nos. 7 and 11 seek to qualify the circumstances which the council and the Secretary of State should take into account in confirming, respectively, unopposed and opposed orders. We accept that the practicability of diverting a crossing rather than simply stopping it up should be considered, as should the possibility of replacing the crossing with a bridge or underpass.

On the other hand, the term improving the safety of the public at the crossing suggests that measures might be taken which, although an improvement, still did not make the cross safe for use. We think that that would be an unacceptable watering down of the safety provisions in the Bill. Our view, more broadly, is that the amendments would prevent the Secretary of State from taking into account other circumstances which may be relevant to the decision. That cannot be right.

I have some sympathy for the intention behind amendment No. 8, but we think that that could be dealt with in the regulations which would be made, prescribing the information which the railway operator would have to provide with his request for a rail crossing order. We shall come to that when we debate amendment No. 72.

Amendment No. 12 is good in parts. We agree that the new point of termination of a diverted path or way should be safe for use by the public. That would be considered by the council and the Secretary of State in deciding whether to confirm a rail crossing diversion order. Neither authority would be prepared to confirm a diversion order where the diverted path or way was demonstrably unsafe.

However, it might be reasonable for a rail crossing diversion order to be confirmed where the point of termination of the path or way was not substantially as convenient to the public. Where safety is involved, a less convenient right of way might be more acceptable to the path users than the loss of the right of way altogether—which might be the only other practicable option. The Secretary of State or the council must have regard to the relative convenience of the diverted path or way, and would turn away an order where the diversion was so inconvenient as not to offer a reasonable alternative, but those matters are best left to guidelines rather than prescription in the primary legislation. We have covered that, but I give an undertaking to meet the Rights of Way Review Committee if there are other concerns. We have already met the committee, and the amendments that we have tabled are a result of those meetings.

I hope that the hon. Member will feel able not to press his amendment.

Mr. Fearn

The Minister has given reassurances, and he mentioned the word "safety" twice, so I shall withdraw the amendments in my name.

Mr. Speaker

We do not need the pleasure of a withdrawal.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: No. 39 in page 34, line 35, at end insert ', and (b) what arrangements have been made for ensuring that, if the order is confirmed, any appropriate barriers and signs are erected and maintained. (4A) Before determining to make a rail crossing extinguishment order on the representations of the operator of the railway crossed by the path or way, the council may require him to enter into an agreement with them to defray, or to make such contribution as may be specified in the agreement towards, any expenses which the council may incur in connection with the erection or maintenance of barriers and signs.'.

No. 40, in page 34, line 44, after 'section', insert '— operator", in relation to a railway, means any person carrying on an undertaking which includes maintaining the permanent way;'.—[Mr. McLoughlin.]

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

I beg to move amendment: No. 10, in page 34, line 44, leave out from 'railway' to end of line 46 and insert 'does not include tramway'.

Mr. Speaker

With this it will be convenient to consider amendment No. 13, in page 36, lin 32, leave out from 'railway' to end of line 34 and insert 'does not include tramway'.

Mr. Bennett

Why does the Minister have to apply the proposals for crossings to tramways? My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) described graphically the problems for the drivers of high-speed trains and the horror that they could experience if they were involved in an accident on a level crossing. We can all understand that there is a balance between the requirements of safety and the problems that they present for the railway on main lines, with trains travelling at considerable speeds. How does he envisage the same problems applying to a tramway, as in most instances at some time or other they will run through a town centre? Why is it necessary to consider the closure of footpath crossings on tramways?

Mr. McLoughlin

I agree with the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) that the provisions in schedule 2 apply mainly, if not wholly, to railways. There are, for the moment, only two tramways in England and Wales operating passenger services—Blackpool and Great Orme—but in both cases I am told, there are substantial lengths which do not run on the street. The Manchester metro and other new light rail systems will also include sections of segregated tramway. It is possible therefore that a path or way crossing a tramway operated off street could become unsafe.

For example, a new caravan park might result in increased use by people unfamiliar with the tramway and it might be necessary to stop up or divert the crossing on safety grounds. Although I agree, therefore, that the provisions are basically there for railway crossings, we cannot rule out entirely the need to use them for tramways, and because of the important public safety considerations, this provision must be comprehensive. I hope that I have given the reassurance that the hon. Gentleman requires.

9.45 pm
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

The Minister certainly has not. I do not remember which hon. Member gave a long reminiscence in Committee about travelling on the Great Orme tramway.

Mr. Snape

It was me.

Mr. Bennett

I am sorry that I failed to credit my hon. Friend.

If the Minister had experience of that tramway, he would realise that it was not driven at such great speeds that it was not safe to walk across the track. I can understand that there are circumstances in which it is not safe to be in front of a Blackpool tram, but that is only on the carriageway. It seems odd to say that people can walk to and fro on the carriageway, but if the trams run on a small section that is not on the carriageway, people cannot walk across that. That is totally illogical and inconsistent.

The Minister has asked about new circumstances. I hope that the new Greater Manchester tramway system will be operating by the end of the month. Sections of that line towards Altrincham and Bury use what were railway lines, which have been downgraded for trams. I cannot envisage a situation in which trams will travel so fast along that section of track that the footpath will have to be closed, yet on other parts of the route, the same trams will run along carriageways in which people will be free to walk backwards and forwards across a track without any difficulty.

If the Minister wants to reassure ramblers and others that he is not setting out to close footpaths on a wholesale basis, which is totally unnecessary, it would be far better for him to make one more concession and accept the amendment. I know that he is not keen to have amendments moved in the House of Lords or to delay the progress of the Bill, but I am tempted to push this to a vote.

Amendment negatived.

Amendments made: No. 41, in page 35, line 25, after 'to', insert— '(a)'. No. 42, in page 35, line 26, at end insert ',and (b) what arrangements have been made for ensuring that, if the order is confirmed, any appropriate barriers and signs are erected and maintained.'. No. 43, in page 35, line 34, at end insert— '() A rail crossing diversion order may make provision requiring the operator of the railway to maintain all or part of the footpath or bridleway created by the order.'. No. 44, in page 35, line 48, at end insert— '(aa) any expenses which the council may incur in connection with the erection of maintenance of barriers and signs;'. No. 45, in page 35, line 52, leave out 'or'.

No. 71, in page 37, line 2, leave out 'written'.

No. 72, in page 37, line 4, after 'railway', insert— '(aa) the request is in such form and gives such particulars as are prescribed by regulations made by the Secretary of State'. No. 73, in page 37, line 40, at end insert— '7A. In section 325 (provisions as to regulations, schemes and orders) in subsection (2)(a), after the word "section", there shall be inserted the words "120(3A) or".'.—[Mr. McLoughlin.]

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