HC Deb 16 November 1995 vol 267 cc230-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Bates.]

10 pm

Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North)

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate an issue that is of considerable concern to a number of my constituents. I welcome my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, who will reply: I have happy memories of canvassing in his constituency during a by-election some years ago.

I also welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Bates), the Whip, whose presence increases the attendance at the debate by 50 per cent.—if my mathematics is correct.

Too often, issues and concerns involving planning, road improvements and so forth are dismissed in the acronym NIMBY—"not in my back yard"—or in a newer term, which I heard only recently. I am not sure whether my hon. Friend the Minister has heard it before, but BANANA can be translated as "build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone". All too., often, however, real problems occur, and people can be seriously damaged by developments and change in their localities.

In my constituency, the remedial works undertaken by Norfolk county council on the heavily used junction between Boundary road, Cromer road and Mile Cross lane in July 1988 seemed to be only of local interest, but they have wider significance in regard to the approach of local authorities to such situations, and in regard to the current state of the law and practice on compensation. There is no doubt that the traffic volumes at that junction justified the remedial work that was started by Norfolk county council in 1985 and completed on 14 July 1988. I know that the work was justified, because I use the junction regularly when I drive in and out of my constituency at the weekend and the beginning and end of the week. It is a worthwhile and good scheme: that is generally agreed.

Part of the scheme, however, involved new and much more complicated rerouting arrangements for the occupants of properties on Cromer road. Two of my constituents—Mrs. Duffield and Mrs. Langham, of 12 and 14 Cromer road—were advised by a county council officer to go via Mile Cross lane into Eversley road and then into Mayfield avenue out on to Cromer road and then left on Cromer road, just to get into their own front drives.

The inconvenience that my constituents experienced getting into their own properties was compounded by extremely disagreeable problems created by the new traffic lights. Mrs. Langham found that she and her family could not eat their meals in their dining room because of the audience outside, and that her bedroom was clearly visible to passengers on the upper deck of buses outside her home. Her neighbour Mrs. Duffield has described to me the effects of living in a house where car headlights shine directly into the property as vehicles turn out of Reepham road into Cromer road, and of the noise, pollution and vibration from which she suffers. It is much more difficult to get anyone to call on them, or to park nearby.

To be fair to Norfolk county council—which has been very helpful in answering my inquiries during my preparation for the debate—it offered compensation to residents adversely affected by noise, vibration, smell, fumes and smoke under the Land Compensation Act 1973. I understand from Mrs. Duffield that the county council's officers advised that no claim for compensation would be entertained until a year had elapsed—the implication being that that was because compensation would be based on nuisance monitored over that time.

There are some further important points to make about the county council's conduct in this area. It failed to make it clear until October 1994 that it had power under section 246(2)(b) of the Highways Act 1980 to purchase both of these properties within one year of the opening to public traffic of the new road system. That was done only in correspondence to me. It was subsequently defended to me by the county council on 6 April this year on the ground that there is no statutory duty on the County Council to inform people of their rights. Surely it is special pleading of a regrettable kind to transfer this obligation to private individuals or their advisers, especially when the chief executive of the county council had claimed that

the Authority has no obligation or legal power to part with compensation other than in accordance with legislation. That was dated 1 October 1990. Unfortunately, the negotiations between the county council and the representatives of Mrs. Duffield and Mrs. Langham did not proceed smoothly. Both my constituents suffered a significant diminution in the value of their homes at a time when the property market was already falling. Despite the fact that Mrs. Duffield and Mrs. Langham live in adjoining properties, Mrs. Duffield received an offer of compensation in September 1990 on the basis that she had the most severe case and could be used as a "test case". Meanwhile, Mrs. Langham's advisers were being encouraged to make an appropriate claim based on the legal circumstances, with the county council's offer to her resting on the decision of Mrs. Duffield. The onus was firmly placed on the residents to accept whatever the county council was prepared to offer.

Not surprisingly, the settlement of these claims in November 1990 left both my constituents highly dissatisfied. Mrs. Langham's property is now valued at more than £20,000 less than it was five years ago, and Mrs. Duffield cannot contemplate selling. Both feel that they have been shabbily treated by the local highways authority. Their feelings have been aggravated by subsequent decisions by the county council. Traffic surveys in January 1990 and April 1992 showed that many motorists were avoiding the traffic lights that had been installed at the Boundary road junction by travelling along Eversley road to Mile Cross road. Eversley road had become a rat run.

The county council's highways sub-committee decided to erect bollards to close Eversley road to through traffic. That meant that the route for residents of Cromer road to get into their own properties became even more complicated. Mrs. Langham now has to pass through two sets of traffic lights to turn right into Mayfield avenue and then into Eversley road just to get into her rear drive. Both my constituents have been advised to take an even longer route via Reepham road, Heather avenue and Cromer road past a first school, making difficult turns into heavy traffic flows. I appreciate that the Minister may not be as familiar as I am with the roads in my constituency, but I am sure that he takes the point.

The alteration to the arrangements that were made in 1988 was made even more unpalatable by the county council's failure to inform residents of Cromer road that the views of the public were being sought about the closure of Eversley road. With the support of the ward members, one of whom lived in Eversley road, the revised scheme was approved despite the balance of opinion among those consulted being against the closure. Once again the county council failed to inform my constituents about the date of the closure of Eversley road although they were the people most severely affected according to the council's own report.

I hope that the Minister will accept that this is a sorry saga from the point of view of the people affected, who approached me about it. I have no doubt that it has been repeated many times throughout the country and that it will happen again. The lessons are clear. It is quite wrong for highway authorities to pick and choose whether they will inform residents who are adversely affected by improvement schemes of their rights. Simply assuming that their agents will be fully aware of the provisions of the Highways Act rather than those of the Land Compensation Act inevitably puts them in a weaker position. If only a minute proportion of the two properties that I have mentioned had been taken for the Boundary road scheme, both my constituents would have had their properties purchased at market valuation. As it is, they have suffered a considerable devaluation and their access problems have been made worse by the county council's decision in May 1992.

I understand that local authorities are reluctant to offer compensation on a discretionary basis. The financial implications are clearly important; so too are the difficulties in formulating criteria to ensure that people whose property suffers adverse effects outside the strict definitions of the Land Compensation Act are consistently dealt with. None the less, we all know constituents whose homes have been affected by public works, whose views may have been ruined by new developments, or whose businesses may have suffered as a result of traffic-diversion schemes, but who, under present legislation, are entitled to little or no compensation.

Local authority officers believe that the Government and Parliament have deliberately sidestepped the issue of compensation in such cases, preferring to leave this difficult matter to the discretion of local government, with the assurance that no action will be taken for financial reasons. I suspect that my hon. Friend may wish to comment on that point. I hope that that belief is unfounded. As my constituents' experience shows, leaving the determination of compensation to a local authority results in the worst possible deal for residents. If Norfolk county council was not prepared to inform them of their rights but instead to rely on a test case involving a resident of Cromer road whose advisers were not fully aware of the legal possibilities, the time for a renewed examination of the problem has clearly come.

At national level, we need to reconsider these matters. Why are the issues apparently dealt with much more expeditiously and smoothly on the continent? Is it because we are an overcrowded nation that we seem to make such difficulty of planning matters, which drag on and leave everyone upset and unhappy? Is it because—and here I show my prejudices—our legal administrative processes are fundamentally flawed and out of date, which my time in Parliament has convinced me that they are? Is that the problem? What can be done to help my constituents? I hope that my hon. Friend can give me some reassurance or advice. How can we improve matters? I look forward to his reply.

10.11 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Steve Norris)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) on securing the debate and I am grateful to him for his kind remarks. I remember his valiant canvassing efforts on my behalf during my by-election in 1988. If I recall, a large Rottweiler took a significant piece out of his trousers during his canvassing efforts—an event about which he has never ceased to remind me on every occasion that I have met him since. As that is now seven years, I feel as if I have somehow paid for that suit several times over, but I yield to no one in my appreciation of his efforts and I shall be eternally grateful to him. In all seriousness, I have known him for many years and one thing is certain—his tremendous assiduity on behalf of his constituents, as he has demonstrated at this late hour by bringing to the attention of the House a matter that is so important to his constituents.

My hon. Friend has outlined the dispute between Mrs. Duffield and Mrs. Langham and the local highway authority, Norfolk county council, as a result of the junction alteration and subsequent works for traffic management. He acknowledged that, in practice, the county council was justified in undertaking the works on the junction where Mrs. Duffield and Mrs. Langham live, and it is important that we should place that on the record, but he raises the problems that his constituents have experienced from both the junction alteration and later works for traffic management in the neighbouring road.

The roads in the case that my hon. Friend mentioned are of course local roads, and that means that their management and development are the responsibility of the local highway authority, which, in this case, is Norfolk county council. I should say for the record, because it bears on his remarks, that, although the Secretary of State for Transport is also a highway authority, that responsibility is limited to the motorway and trunk road network, which, although it carries large volumes of longer-distance traffic, constitutes only 4 per cent. of the road network; the rest is the responsibility of the local highway authority. Decisions are primarily for them. As the House will understand, that is right and proper because they are democratically accountable bodies which exercise their responsibilities in the interests of their local communities.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will recognise that, in general, the local highway authorities bring a high level of competence to their work. I am sure that he will agree that decisions with essentially local impact are, rightly, matters for local government rather than for central Government. My hon. Friend was kind enough to suggest that I might not be as familiar with Cromer road as he is. That illustrates the point. The man from Whitehall cannot be expected to devote the same attention with the same degree of knowledge to such localised schemes as a local authority.

Having established that it is quite proper that a highway authority should be a local authority, I shall turn to the two problems raised by my hon. Friend. The first problem relates to compensation for the effect of the original junction improvement scheme. It might be helpful to the House if I give a brief explanation of the powers that can apply in land compensation cases. A range of powers, some discretionary, are available to a highway authority to acquire land or compensate those owners who are adversely affected by highway schemes.

Sections 149 to 171 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 require a highway authority to acquire land blighted by road proposals as defined in schedule 13 to the Act. Blighted land is, in general, the land required or land that is likely to be subject to compulsory purchase for highway purposes. That is a requirement on the highway authority to buy land needed for the scheme in advance.

Section 246(2A) of the Highways Act 1980 enables a highway authority to acquire, by agreement and in advance, land that is not required for a road scheme but that will, in the opinion of the highway authority, be severely affected by it. That is a new discretionary power, which was not available to Norfolk county council at the time of the alterations to Cromer road. It was introduced by section 62 of the Planning and Compensation Act 1991, which followed a full review of highway land compensation arrangements.

Section 246(2)(a) of the Highways Act 1980 enables a highway authority to acquire, by agreement, land adversely affected by the construction or improvement of the highway. That is a discretionary power which can be exercised only at the time the work is being carried out.

Section 246(2)(b) of the Highways Act 1980 enables a highway authority to acquire by agreement, land adversely affected by the use of the highway. That is a discretionary power, which can be exercised only once the highway is open to traffic.

Finally, part I of the Land Compensation Act 1973, which is the major legislation, requires a highway authority to compensate landowners for depreciation in the value of their property caused by physical factors such as noise and dust.

As my hon. Friend has suggested, I understand that Mrs. Duffield and Mrs. Langham both received offers of compensation to which they were entitled under part I of the Land Compensation Act 1973 for the loss in value of their home a result of the junction alteration measures taken in 1987 and 1988. Mrs. Duffield and Mrs. Langham were advised by independent professional valuation agents in their negotiations with the council and accepted offers of compensation in 1990. The council also reimbursed them for the fees charged by the agents.

It seems that the owners were not advised by either their independent professional valuation agents or the council of the discretionary powers in section 246(2)(b) of the Highways Act 1980, which I have just outlined. As I have explained, those powers allow a highway authority the discretion to acquire property, that, in the opinion of the authority, is seriously affected by the use of a new or altered highway. The discretionary power to acquire property in this way can be exercised up to one year after a road has opened or been altered; it then lapses.

The failure to communicate the full legal options available to the council is disappointing. It does not, however, follow that, had the owners applied for discretionary purchase, the highway authority would have exercised its discretion to offer to buy their properties. In this case, sadly, those powers are now lapsed.

As my hon. Friend said, compensation has already been paid under part I of the Land Compensation Act 1973. His constituents were compensated for the loss in value arising from the junction alteration and I understand that, whatever their feeling about the conduct of the negotiations, they accepted the compensation offered as a full and final settlement of their claim for the depreciation in value caused by those works. My hon. Friend will understand that I have no locus to intervene in such negotiations.

I shall deal now with the second part of the problem—the effects on Cromer road of the later proposal to close Eversley road to through traffic. Mrs. Duffield and Mrs. Langham clearly feel that they were not adequately consulted by the council about that proposal. The House will appreciate that it is difficult for me to comment on that as a matter of fact. It is clear that the local highway authority was aware of the likely impact of the measures on properties in Cromer road when it decided in May 1992 that the further measure was necessary. It is less clear whether it did all that it could have done to ensure that those affected were properly informed of what was proposed.

Although the works in Eversley road have an effect on residents of Cromer road, no further claim for compensation arises as there is no physical alteration to the carriageway. That is based on the well-established and, in my view, entirely correct, principle that existing unaltered roads may be expected to be used to their full capacity. After all, the proposition is that a frontager should be compensated for an increase in traffic levels brought about not by any physical alteration but merely by some other factor outside the direct relevance of the road and the frontager. I wonder what my hon. Friend's reaction might be to the proposition that would, I assume, naturally flow from that, which is that, were traffic volumes to be reduced by, for example, the opening of an adjacent bypass, frontagers should be charged a substantial sum of money to cover the additional value that presumably attaches to their property. In essence, and in the public interest, the general policy—which states that when there is no physical alteration, no claim for compensation arises—is, I believe, a sound one.

Local authorities have wide powers under the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 to make traffic regulation orders to regulate traffic on local roads. Those powers are very flexible. Restrictions can be imposed on single streets, or parts of them, or they can apply to all roads within a particular area. Orders may, for example, prohibit, restrict or regulate the use of a road or any part of the width of a road by vehicular traffic of any class. They may have effect at all times or at specified periods or they can be applied to different classes of traffic. For example, exemptions might apply to heavy goods vehicles alone, and exemptions from the terms of an order can be made for vehicles used for particular purposes, such as taxis or delivery vehicles or those belonging to residents or businesses located in the area. If necessary, exempt vehicles may even be identified by permits.

Such an order is not subject to reference to the Secretary of State. The decision whether to make a traffic regulation order rests solely with the local traffic authority but, in exercising its powers under the 1984 Act, it must have regard to the desirability of securing and maintaining reasonable access to premises. It may, however, be open to the residents who are affected to seek further revisions to existing traffic management arrangements.

My hon. Friend raises an important point about informing citizens of their rights and possible remedies for nuisance caused by public development. The Government are firmly committed to that principle and to making information available in accordance with citizens charter principles. We have produced a booklet entitled "Land Compensation—Your rights explained". I have given my hon. Friend a number of copies which I hope that he will distribute to his constituents.

The Highways Agency, which has operational responsibility for trunk roads and motorway schemes, sends such booklets, together with its own charter statement, to people whose property may be affected by scheme proposals. It does that to advise them precisely of the remedies that might be available to them. Local highway authorities, including Norfolk, may well also consider issuing the advice in those booklets to inform owners who may be affected by local road schemes.

It is one thing for a local authority to point to the fact that it has no strict statutory obligation to inform every person affected of their potential right to compensation—that, after all, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is a long-established principle that you and I understand in relation to planning law, and it is based on the sensible proposition that a planning consent or, indeed, a road order, cannot be entirely set aside merely because of a failure to inform every single person who might be affected—but it is not satisfactory to suggest that that gives local authorities a right simply not to bother to let people know what their rights are.

Good practice, and, as I have suggested, practice which is followed by the Highways Agency—certainly in relation to its schemes, for which my Department is more directly responsible—is informing owners of their rights in precisely the form that I have outlined. That does not in any sense prejudge any success or otherwise of any claim that owners may subsequently make. Indeed, one of the advantages of information in such circumstances is that it allows local people to understand that there is a comprehensive system of compensation available; that it will not apply in every case; that it may very well be that, on occasions, a claim will not be successful, which will save potential correspondents considerable time and ultimately wasted effort. I suspect, however, that in a number of cases the information will also suggest to people that the framework for compensation is in fact relatively straightforward and indeed logical in the massive majority of cases. I commend that better practice.

Of course local authority discretion—dealing with the issue of discretion—is important, and so is the right of individual citizens to be informed about proposals that may affect their property. As I say, I am not in a position to judge whether Norfolk provided all the information that it should have done in this case. All I can say is that Mrs. Duffield and Mrs. Langham clearly do not think that they received all the information that they should have done. I invite the county council to reflect on whether there is a way in which it can improve its procedures to prevent such a problem arising again.

I commend the principles of openness and consultation to all local authorities. In the event, that process is likely to avoid very considerable unnecessary acrimony, recrimination and, indeed, genuine hardship and distress to people who certainly do not deserve it.

Mrs. Langham and Mrs. Duffield may—I hope—take some pleasure from knowing that in this debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North has enabled me to

put across what I believe is an extraordinarily important point in this regard and one of which many local authorities would do well to take account.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Ten o'clock