HC Deb 03 November 1997 vol 300 cc86-94

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

8.1 pm

Caroline Flint (Don Valley)

I begin by thanking you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to raise the problems relating to unadopted roads, and by thanking my hon. Friend the Minister for being here to address the subject.

In raising this issue, I should like to draw attention to similar problems in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes). As a Whip he does not have the opportunity to raise the matter in such a debate, but his constituency, too, is plagued by the existence of unadopted roads and the long-standing conflicts and upset that they create. I also thank my hon. Friend for Neath (Mr. Hain), who is now an Under-Secretary of State for Wales, and other colleagues who have raised this matter in the House. It is of some reassurance to me that this matter has vexed some of my colleagues over many years, just as it has troubled their constituents.

All too often, when roads are discussed in national forums or the media, the debate is dominated by the case for or against a new motorway or the bypassing of a town or village. Such debates invariably attract petitioners, professors and protesters who argue the merits of Government policy and trade statistics and traffic flows. The Minister will have become familiar with such well-organised lobbies in her first few months in post.

During my few months as the Member of Parliament for Don Valley, my mailbag and surgeries have made me aware of the fact that, for a large number of my constituents, roads are a major issue. They live in isolation, in quiet cul-de-sacs, traditional terraces and leafy lanes. This group is not organised under a national banner and has no PR officers or full-time lobbyists. This large group of protesters comprises the residents of unadopted roads—private roads that have never been taken into the responsibility of a local authority. They have their own story to tell, some going back generations.

They include a lady in Clifton terrace, Conisbrough, who told me that, as a result of increased traffic from a recently built crescent that surrounds her little road, there is now a drop of 1 ft from the edge of her property into the road. A funeral hearse could not enter the road, and the body had to be moved to another house to shorten the journey to the hearse.

There is the plight of residents in Ingleborough drive, Sprotbrough, who are threatening to close their road to parents who park their cars to drop off and collect their children from the school opposite. The residents of Ingleborough drive are furious that, although many other people use their road, worsening its condition, it is not publicly maintained. Ironically, while part of their road is adopted, most of it is not.

Then there is the example of the elderly lady in the adjoining Ingle grove who refuses to leave her home because she feels that the road is too dangerous and she might fall. Or there are the residents of Minney Moor lane in Conisbrough, a steep sloping track running off the main Doncaster road. The road is subject to flash flooding and, in winter, water pours off the main road, washing away the top surface of the lane. The local archive reveals that the road was recognised as a private road as early as 1858. A letter from the borough engineer in 1959 appealed to residents to agree to improvements since without the approval of all the frontagers concerned the work cannot proceed.

The present residents of Minney Moor lane must feel that they are stuck in a time warp when they read such letters. The sad truth is that the present law for dealing with these problems is inoperable. We often hear of the concerns of the ambulance and fire services about traffic-calming measures hindering their progress. There is nothing like a rutted, potholed, unadopted road to enforce traffic calming—although when I am told that an ambulance driver collecting a patient who has experienced an angina attack is concerned that the bumpy journey may be doing more harm than good, "calming" is the last word that comes to mind. In several cases, I am informed, doctors will not drive along such roads.

The problem is not isolated or parochial. In Doncaster borough alone there are about 120 unadopted roads, plus a large number of unadopted service roads to the rear of terraced properties. There are an estimated 40,000 unadopted roads in Britain. That means that there are a lot of people left wanting a road policy that works for them. Private roads are largely historical accidents. In this day and age, no new private roads should be created. Modern planning law ensures that a developer makes up the roads to a suitable standard for adoption. Thereafter the roads are maintained by the local authority in the normal way.

However, the cost of making up existing unadopted roads for adoption is the responsibility of the affected residents, and that cost is usually prohibitive. In Doncaster, no road has been made up for adoption since 1986. Under present law, the local authority has the power to carry out emergency work to obviate danger to traffic, but with the capital constraints, even my own authority has ceased to undertake emergency work on unadopted roads, so roads become ever more neglected and, in some cases, extremely dangerous.

Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford, South)

Is it not the case that residents of unadopted roads see other roads throughout their local authority area in Doncaster and Bradford, and cannot understand why moneys cannot be spent on their streets? They do not understand the difficulties that local authorities have in how they spend their money.

Caroline Flint

My hon. Friend is quite right. People would like their sense of inequality and injustice put right. I hope that the Minister will address that today.

Where does all this leave the residents of private roads? The money to pay for the initial work must be funded from the authority's capital funds if it is to deal with this issue, but competing priorities—especially for those for which the authority has a statutory responsibility—will always take precedent.

Doncaster is not alone, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe) rightly points out. This problem is commonplace among local authorities of all political persuasions throughout the country.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley)

I agree that there is a need for this issue to be taken seriously. Although my own constituency does not have as many as 120 unadopted roads, I, like many other hon. Members, have a number of constituents who are concerned about the issue. It is often difficult to know who is responsible for which road. In cases where we are not sure whether the borough council or the county council is responsible for a road or whether it is private, it turns out to be unadopted.

My hon. Friend is right to say that sometimes there is a choice. Should a road be incapable of use by an ambulance just because it might otherwise be used by motor cycles speeding up and down it? The idea that a road that is full of potholes can be used for traffic calming rather than being in a fit state to be used by emergency vehicles and for people's ordinary transport is difficult to cope with. I hope that the Minister will take my hon. Friend's arguments very seriously. These matters are of great concern to those who feel that they cannot afford to finance the work needed to enable vehicles to use their road.

Caroline Flint

I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution.

Where does all this leave the residents of private roads? They can club together to have the road made up, but at about £200 per metre of road they often face a bill of £2,000 or more per household. For that reason, some residents object, and the plan invariably fails to proceed.

I am advised that houses on such roads cost less, which sometimes leads to a lower council tax. At one extreme the price differential leaves houses in the same council tax band as their adopted neighbours, while at the other extreme a modest saving on the purchase price 10 or 20 years ago is more than offset by a complete blight on the sale today, as prospective buyers make their first bumpy journey to view the house, never to return. The problem may be historical, but the misery seems eternal. Private roads are a private nightmare.

In this short debate, I ask the Minister to investigate the possible medium and long-term solutions to the problem. In time, the adoption of private roads may become one of our national transport objectives. We should seek imaginative ways of overcoming the financial obstacles to the making up of roads for adoption, such as using private finance to avoid the local authority having to make an initial capital outlay. Householders and other bodies with frontages on such streets are liable for making up private roads. The cost could perhaps be spread over 10 years as a charge on their council tax, thereby spreading the financial impact for present and future householders.

Private, unadopted roads should be regarded in the same way as outside toilets and asbestos in buildings: a legacy of the past and not something that we should live with in the future.

Mr. Sutcliffe

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. She said that we should find inventive solutions. Some of the privatised utilities use unadopted roads, such as water companies for the drains and telecommunication companies. We should try to find alternative ways for them to work in partnership with residents and the local authority to come up with creative solutions.

Caroline Flint

I thank my hon. Friend for his further intervention. He is right. If householders, private utilities that use the streets and the local authority worked together they could have fruitful discussions and find a solution for the future.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North)

Does my hon. Friend have any experience of the hazards to women who have to walk along such streets? They face lighting and other problems, especially at night. In Norfolk, particularly in Norwich, refuse vehicles have problems getting down unadopted roads, and people do not get their refuse bins emptied. That creates terrible problems and makes it difficult to obtain contracts. Will my hon. Friend comment on the hazards to women and the problems of refuse collection in such areas?

Caroline Flint

I thank my hon. Friend for pointing that out. As a student of the university of East Anglia for three years, and having lived in one of the outlying villages, I know full well the problems in Norwich and Norfolk. I am pleased that so many of my hon. Friends are present to support me in what is clearly a national debate of major importance. This is not a parochial issue: it affects the rural parts of our constituencies.

On the subject of women, I have seen for myself that one takes one's life in one's hands when walking down such streets. I am sure that my hon. Friends are aware of the problems facing householders when someone falls off his bicycle having gone into a crater in one of these roads. Householders are liable for any damages that that person claims against the people who live in the street.

I hope that the Minister will deal with these issues of public health and safety. As we enter the next century, people should have the right to live on roads that are made up and fit to walk and travel on. It is not beyond our ambition and vision to consign unadopted roads to the past.

As the new Member of Parliament for Don Valley, I thought that this problem may have been brought up only in my surgeries. I welcome the fact that, as this debate has shown, many hon. Members consider this to be an important issue. Hon. Members are inundated with representations from organised lobbies putting forward their case on transport policy. When one considers how many people live in those 120 roads in the Doncaster area, one realises how many are affected every day by the dire situations in their streets and on their doorsteps.

Judy Mallaber

Is my hon. Friend aware that many of the people who have these concerns are isolated and are not from organised groups, precisely because unadopted roads are often in rural areas, are unlit and isolated and do not have many people living on them? They come to our surgeries to ask for help, but it is difficult for them to make their voices heard, and they do not get support from many other people. Is that also the position in my hon. Friend's constituency?

Caroline Flint

I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. Yes, that is position. People come to me, as the Member of Parliament, for my help in putting their case. I am grateful to my hon. Friends who have seen fit to participate in this debate and who, having done so, will be seen by their constituents as supporting them on this important issue.

On behalf of the many affected residents in Don Valley and the many other constituencies represented this evening, I thank the Minister for listening.

Mr. Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington, East)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this Adjournment debate. This is an important issue, and the turnout of hon. Members shows the level of support. The problem affects tens of thousands of constituents throughout the country. In my constituency, every ward faces the serious problem of unadopted roads, which should be dealt with as part of the regeneration of the area. The problem is particularly acute in former mining constituencies, where British Coal assumed some responsibility in the past, but that is no longer the position.

This issue is about regeneration, improving the quality of life and giving people the dignity of a decent environment literally outside their front door. We can all talk about this problem in generalities, but I ask my hon. Friend to listen briefly to the case of a lady in my constituency, which I heard about at a public meeting. Mrs. Lily Earnshaw is 94 years young.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. The hon. Gentleman is making an intervention. I remind him that interventions should be reasonably brief.

Mr. Kemp

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I ask my hon. Friend to bear in mind the case of Mrs. Lily Earnshaw, who, at 94, suffered an accident and the ambulance had serious difficulties getting along her street. That problem is shared by many in the constituency. In life she wants dignity, but she had a tragic experience when her husband died last year. The cortege could not leave the family home, and had to be organised from the hospital direct to the cemetery. A 95-year-old man could not have that dignity. I spoke to my 94-year-old constituent, and she pointed out that her nephew is Sir Terence Burns, who is a permanent secretary at the Treasury. Perhaps the Minister could bear that in mind when she makes financial representations.

Caroline Flint

I thank my hon. Friend, and I thank Lily for helping us to drop such an important name into the debate.

I ask the Minister to give this matter due consideration, and wish her every success in her efforts to help improve the quality of transport and the life of road users as we approach the millennium.

8.18 pm
The Minister of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong)

I am responding to the debate in place of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson), and I apologise for her absence. As a fellow Minister in the Department, I hope that hon. Members will accept that we have discussed this issue and I am responding on behalf of the Department.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) for raising this important issue. I am also grateful for the interventions of my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) and for Houghton and Washington, East (Mr. Kemp). This is a matter of great concern, not only in my hon. Friend's constituency but elsewhere in the country.

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Perhaps you can help me. I am a new Member, and I should like to know whether it is in order for a Minister who was not here at the beginning of the debate, when someone from the Department involved should have been present, to reply.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

It is customary for the Minister responsible for the Department to be present at the beginning of the debate and to respond at the end. I think that the Minister of State has already apologised to the House.

Ms Armstrong

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Unadopted roads are known in the legislation as private streets, and I shall use that term in my speech. People in the country will probably recognise it more easily.

The Government's involvement in private streets is very limited, and, as a consequence, so is our information about them. The latest reliable figures for the extent of private streets date from as long ago as 1972. At that time, there were some 40,000 private streets—totalling about 4,500 miles—throughout England and Wales. In 1990, it was estimated that it would cost over £2,000 million to make up all private streets for adoption. My best guess, in the absence of firm information, is that the number of private streets is gradually declining in extent, and that the real costs of making them up are declining accordingly, but I suspect that today's figures are not very different from those that I have quoted.

My hon. Friend kindly gave me notice of some of the main points she wanted to make, and I shall do my best to answer them. First, however, it may be helpful if I set out the background in law. A private street is a highway that is not maintainable at public expense by a highway authority. As with many aspects of highways legislation, there is a long history behind the law relating to road maintenance and adoption. My hon. Friend may be relieved to learn that I do not propose to rehearse the whole story now.

Suffice it to say that 1835 marked something of a watershed, as it was the Highway Act of that year that introduced a provision whereby, for a street to become publicly maintainable, the "responsible public authority" must deliberately resolve to adopt it. Nowadays, that authority will normally be the local highway authority—for example, Doncaster borough council for most of my hon. Friend's constituency.

In most cases, the responsibility for maintaining a private street will fall to the owners of the properties adjoining it—or the frontagers, as they are known in the language that is used—who are also legally liable to meet the expenses incurred by the council, as "street works authority", in making up the street for adoption.

The current law governing the adoption of private streets is contained in the Highways Act 1980. Part XI of that Act contains what is known as the private street works code. Under the code, a street works authority can resolve to make up a private street at any time, and the frontagers have no legal veto over that decision—although most authorities are reluctant to proceed in the face of substantial opposition. After the works, the street is usually adopted. The authority can apportion the expenses of making up the street among the frontagers by reference to the frontage lengths of individual properties, but it may also modify those apportionments if it has resolved in advance to take account of the degree of benefit, if any, that individual properties derive from the works. In addition, the authority may, if it sees fit, contribute to the cost of the schemes itself.

There are opportunities to challenge apportionments. Any property owners who believe that they have a case can put objections to the authority, on any of a number of grounds set out in the Act, and any of the objections that remain unresolved between them can be determined by a magistrates court. The authority may then demand payment. Once that demand is made, there is, as a final safeguard, a right of appeal to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State against the sum demanded. That strictly limited appellate jurisdiction is the extent of the Department's involvement in individual cases. The Secretary of State cannot, for example, direct an authority to make up or not make up any given private street.

That is not quite the end of the story. In the 1950s, to avoid the wholesale creation of new private street works liability—which had been such a feature of inter-war housing—the advance payments code was introduced. Under the code, a developer building a new property on land fronting a private street must deposit a sum equivalent to the authority's estimated private street works charge before building starts. That amount is set against the frontager's own eventual liability for street works charges, which is discharged to the extent of that sum plus accrued interest. The frontager then pays any shortfall, or receives a refund, as the case may be.

There is an alternative route to adoption. A developer can enter into an agreement with a highway authority for the adoption of a new estate road or other private street when it has been satisfactorily completed. In that case, the advance payments code does not apply, and the house buyer on a new estate has the assurance that there will be no street works charges to be paid later on. Those adoption agreements, as they are known, offer such obvious advantages to both the developer and the authority that that approach is often the preferred one.

That—as I am sure you will be relieved to know, Mr. Deputy Speaker—concludes my description of the ways in which street adoption can be achieved, and the protective provisions that exist to protect individual householders involved from unreasonable demands.

I shall now outline the discretion that local authorities have to contribute from their own resources. Local authorities have the power to moderate street works charges in four ways. First, as I have already said, they may take account of the degree of benefit received. They would typically use that power in order to reduce the charge payable by a householder with a long flank frontage who may receive little or no benefit from the works. They may make up the difference themselves, rather than reapportioning the cost among other frontagers. Secondly, they may allow payments by instalments. Thirdly, in cases of hardship, the authority can waive reimbursement of the principal sum due until the property is sold, and in the meantime recover from the householder the interest on the outstanding charge only. Finally, local authorities have a general discretion to bear part or all of the costs of a scheme themselves.

In that context, it is worth noting that local authorities have the power to use a proportion of their capital receipts from the sale of assets—generally 25 per cent. in the case of council houses, and 50 per cent. in the case of most other receipts—on capital expenditure of any kind in any year. It is, of course, for authorities themselves to determine how those usable capital receipts are spent, in the light of local priorities and circumstances. I simply point out that the power exists.

Having said that local authorities have the power to make payments, I must add that there is an issue about whether it is right for them to do so. There is no doubt that many who live on private streets see the liability to pay private street works charges as unfair. That is particularly true of people whose houses have long frontages that make them liable to correspondingly high charges. While I sympathise with those to whom these charges represent some hardship, we should remember that the liability for street works appears in the local land charges register, and should therefore be taken into account in the purchase price of the house.

Many householders have paid for their own streets to be made up and may feel aggrieved by a decision to make the service free to future users, especially in residential roads where the benefits will be enjoyed almost entirely by the householders and those who visit them, rather than by the public at large.

My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley mentioned the blighting effect of a street not being made up. She seemed to be saying that making up streets would produce an increase in house prices greater than the cost of the work. That is an additional argument for house owners, rather than local authorities, to bear the cost.

My hon. Friend spoke about the difficulties facing a council that wishes to make up a private street, and she mentioned in particular the need for consent, the problem of transitional finance, and the problem for some householders of meeting the costs. That may express itself in opposition to the making up.

On the need for consent, I hope that I have made it clear that there is no legal requirement for unanimity or, indeed, any consent by the frontagers, although a sensible council will, of course, take their views into account.

On transitional finance, my hon. Friend suggested the use of the private finance initiative. I fear that it is unlikely that PFI would be appropriate for this type of relatively small-scale transaction, although I have no objection to councils exploring it. I hope that I have explained the measures that a council may adopt in cases of hardship. Those measures may include payment by instalments.

As I have said, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for enabling the House to consider this issue. There is enough flexibility in the existing system to allow sensible decisions to be taken, and I hope that what I have said will go a good way towards meeting my hon. Friend's concerns.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Minister clearly read her words verbatim without rehearsal or prior knowledge. May we be assured that the discourtesy of switching briefs at the last minute to avoid embarrassment does not occur again?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I have already dealt with that point of order in part. The way in which Ministers respond to debates is entirely a matter for them.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes to Nine o'clock.