HC Deb 27 January 1998 vol 305 cc149-51 3.36 pm
Mrs. Helen Brinton (Peterborough)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to enable highway authorities to make provision in residential areas for the designation of highways where pedestrians and pedal cyclists have priority in the carriageway over mechanically powered vehicles, for the purposes of promoting safety and of improving the environment; and for related purposes. A home zone is a street or group of streets where pedestrians and cyclists have priority and cars travel at a top speed of 10 mph. Drivers have to give way to pedestrians, and cyclists, and are normally responsible for any injury caused to them. The change in the status of the road is clearly indicated through signing, traffic calming measures and landscaping features such as seating, other street furniture and plants.

In some streets, parking is rearranged to make better use of space—especially if the residents are part of a community car-sharing scheme. I should emphasise to the House that residents must be in favour of creating a home zone and should be involved at the design stage. There are at present no home zones in this country, but they have proved to be popular and effective on the continent of Europe, in Austria, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands.

In December, I was pleased to host an event in the House, sponsored by the Children's Play Council, when we were treated to a presentation of what home zones looked like by a speaker from the Netherlands. It was clear to me—and to everyone there—that they are most attractive places, which are of benefit to the whole community; not just the people who live there, but visitors. They improve people's quality of life, by creating safer, healthier public space, which promotes good community relations.

More people are encouraged to go out into the streets, leading to less street crime and burglary. It is safe for young children to go out beyond their own front door—a freedom that older hon. Members will remember from their childhood, but which is denied to our children today.

Article 31 of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, ratified by the United Kingdom in 1991, recognises the right of the child to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts. Obviously, that is healthier for children than staying indoors, and it is more environmentally sustainable than requiring parents to drive them to further-flung physical activities. It encourages the perception of physical activity as part of the routine of everyday life, starting as young as possible, which will also help to reduce dependence on the car in future generations.

There has been a great decline in the number of children walking to school. In 1971, about 70 per cent. of children aged seven walked to school; by 1990, the figure had declined to less than 10 per cent. Of 10 and 11-year-olds, in 1971, more than 90 per cent. walked to school, but in 1990 the figure was down to slightly more than 50 per cent.

The United Kingdom has the worst record in western Europe for child pedestrian accidents, most of which happen within a very short distance of the child's home.

In home zones, children have a chance to learn about traffic without risk of injury—and, by the way, there is no evidence that when they then go into ordinary streets, they are more at risk than they would otherwise have been, as has been asserted.

Older people and people with a disability find it safer to walk in the street in home zones.

In December 1997, at the event in the House of Commons that I mentioned, we heard from residents of a self-contained group of Victorian streets, the Methleys, in Leeds, where there is already overwhelming support for its becoming a home zone—even to the extent that resident drivers undertook a two-week trial of a 10 mph speed limit. I found it especially moving and touching to hear those children describe in the House the difference that the trial made to their lives and all the activities that they could now safely engage in. They could actually use those expensive bikes and rollerblades that all our children today demand and then hardly ever use because it is not safe for them to use them. I am very glad to see in his place my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Hamilton), who represents those residents.

Research conducted by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 1996 found that estates with traffic calming and good space in the front street provided the best environment for children. Nearly one child in four engaged in all kinds of healthy activity in such areas—three times the level in poorly designed estates. The authors of that report concluded that streets in estates should have a speed limit of 10 mph.

I shall now briefly outline the law as it stands. Section 84 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 allows the imposition of variable speed limits, indicated by traffic signs. For non-trunk roads, the power rests with local authorities, but all proposals by them for areas to have speed limits below 30 mph must be approved by the Secretary of State.

Under current departmental guidelines, draft applications for reduced speed orders must include several features, including the following. There should be engineering measures, such as road humps and narrowed gateways into the zone. The emergency services must be consulted. Usually the distance from any point in the zone to the boundary of the zone should be no more than 1 km.

To date, those provisions have been used to create 20 mph zones, but the same legislation would enable lower speed limits to be established. I believe that 20 mph zones have been very successful; nearly 300 schemes are in operation.

I understand that Ministers intend to issue new regulations to make it easier for local authorities to set up such zones, and that the new rules may be in place by the summer. I should welcome that move.

Highway authorities also have powers under the Traffic Calming Act 1992 to introduce measures such as buildouts, pinch points, gateways and rumble devices. Highway authorities can use traffic regulation orders to control traffic, to avoid danger to persons or other traffic using the road; to prevent use of the road by vehicular traffic in a manner that is unsuitable to the existing character of the road; to preserve the character of a road that is especially suitable for use by persons on horseback or on foot; or to preserve or improve the amenities of the area through which the road runs. They can also introduce 20 mph zones under the legislation.

However, highway authorities cannot reverse priority on a road from vehicles to pedestrians. The only provision in law for according such priority is on a pedestrian crossing. Even in pedestrianised streets, pedestrians enjoy priority not as a legal right but in a de facto fashion, as relatively few vehicles are allowed to use such streets at any one time.

Under section 29 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984, as amended in 1991, local authorities may prohibit or restrict vehicles using a street so that it can be used as a street playground, and that is probably the closest equivalent that Britain has to a home zone. However, if a local authority tried to make an order under those provisions to replicate the features of a home zone, its decision would be open to legal challenge, as it would be hard to demonstrate that the zone was being used primarily as a playground for children.

Therefore, we need clear powers to reverse the priority to pedestrians from vehicles. Primary legislation would be required to do that and to give local authorities the power to define which roads should be covered by such a provision.

My Bill seeks to enable the creation of home zones where residents want them. That power will be welcomed by local authorities and the general public.

We all know that most residential streets today are blighted by motor traffic. Too many people are driving too fast along streets that were never designed to accommodate so many cars. Parallel issues on rural roads need to be addressed at some point, but 80 per cent. of the population live in built-up areas.

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady's 10 minutes are up.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mrs. Helen Brinton, Mr. Bob Blizzard, Mr. Geraint Davies, Mr. Fabian Hamilton, Mr. Neil Gerrard, Mr. Lindsay Hoyle, Dr. Brian Iddon, Mrs. Diana Organ, Mr. Lembit Öpik, Mr. Jonathan Shaw and Ms Joan Walley.

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