HC Deb 18 March 1998 vol 308 cc1254-61

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Mr. David Prior (North Norfolk)

I start by apologising for the rather prosaic title of this Adjournment debate on the Order Paper: the impact of street furniture on the rural environment. By street furniture, I mean the whole clutter of signs, railings, bollards, concrete kerbing, street lights, telecommunication masts, concrete traffic islands, raised roundabouts and the like, which have migrated remorselessly from urban areas, where they may be acceptable, to the rural environment, where they are not. As the Council for the Protection of Rural England has remarked, We must not abandon our rural landscape to death by a thousand cuts. It is not always the major attacks—the out-of-town shopping centres, the new dual carriageways—that do the most harm. The slow accretion of smaller alterations ultimately can be far more damaging. I pay tribute to the Norfolk Society, the Norfolk branch of the CPRE, which first brought the issue to my attention in its excellent and graphic booklet, "Norfolk in Peril", which is subtitled "Halting the Destruction of our Countryside: Our Highways and Byways, an important resource that must be protected for present and future generations before it is too late". I also pay tribute to the Sharrington Society, which brought my attention to the construction of two monstrous new motorway-style signs, measuring 3.5 m wide and 3 m high on the A148 between Fakenham and Holt in my constituency. Sharrington now has six signs, all on the A148, and within a mile—all for a village of approximately 60 houses. The signs are clearly out of place in such a small village.

I am not wearing the mantle of Mrs. Snell of "The Archers". I am not against change for the sake of it; I am rather in favour of progress and of some enlightenment. The battle against street furniture and clutter is not one for prohibition. No one argues that road signs or adverts should be banned altogether. One argues for sensibility, tact, and above all, good design. Good design defies contempt, no matter how familiar it becomes. Bad design, overkill and bad siting, not standardisation alone, is the enemy. One has only to compare a new BT telephone box with an old one, look at a line of orange concrete sodium lighting poles or see a telecom mast on top of a hill to know exactly what I mean. We need designs for the countryside, not for urban environments. We must safeguard our local idiosyncrasies and character; that is what makes our rural areas special.

I shall draw an analogy with agricultural practices. Not many years ago, farmers were being encouraged to rip up hedges, fill in ponds, burn stubble, implement drainage schemes and plough marshes. Intensive production was the name of the game, and huge damage was done to our countryside and wildlife. Today, the pendulum has well and truly swung the other way. For that change we have much to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) for.

We now have sites of special scientific interest and areas of outstanding natural beauty; places such as the Norfolk broads have national park status; new legislation protects hedgerows; we have environmentally sensitive areas and nitrate sensitive areas. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the National Trust have more members than all political parties combined. Most importantly, a massive countryside lobby is articulating the views of country people. Yet our highways and byways, which snake through our countryside—some 5,900 miles in Norfolk alone—seem almost completely unaffected. I shall cite four examples to illustrate my point.

The first example is the roadside verge. Road widening has destroyed many wide grass verges. Roadside hedges and trees have often been killed through damage to root structure and consequent water deprivation. There is no longer room for walkers, horses or cyclists to get off the road. Ironically, the widening and straightening of roads leads to faster driving, which calls for hazard warnings, white lines and speed restriction signs. Above all, country lanes have become less aesthetically pleasing. Experience tells us that, when new roads are built and old roads "improved", traffic expands to fill them.

The second example is roadside signs. Too many road signs damage the natural beauty of rural areas. One only has to drive down the Al2 in Essex, with its flock of advertising boards, visit Stonehenge, with its melee of road signs, or enter any of the smaller rural towns in my constituency, with town name, speed limit and "please drive slowly" signs, and lights and road markings, to see the damage that has been done. Such over-signing distracts drivers or encourages drivers to ignore the signs. Our villages look increasingly urban. Am I the only one to feel cross at all the byroad signs strewn across the county? They are out of context in the local area and unnecessary.

As one of my constituents pointed out, such new monstrosities were designed for the benefit of a driver of a 7.5 tonne vehicle with 90 per cent. sight disability. The painted aluminium street signs on metal posts are in stark contrast to the traditional white cast iron and wood finger signs. Some brown tourist signs have effectively become roadside billboards—a means of getting around the ban on roadside advertising.

In Salthouse, a tiny coastal village in north Norfolk through which the coast road runs, there is an array of 58 highway signs and dozens of bollards in the space of a few hundred yards. In Sheringham, a lovely seaside town, one is greeted by a raised black and white roundabout surmounted by metal signs. There are numerous examples of grass roundabouts being concreted over, ugly concrete and metal railings around village ponds, and concrete flood pans over fords. They represent in aggregate all the paraphernalia of a people who seem not to care about or be in sympathy with the countryside.

The third example is lighting. There are increasingly few places in England where one can look up into the night sky to see stars in all their transcendental beauty without being suffused by an unwelcome orange glow, which emanates not just from towns but from more and more small towns and villages. What is worse, except perhaps electricity pylons, than columns of tall concrete posts, topped by orange overhead lights? The wonders of a starlit night are as important to many as the finest daytime view.

My fourth example, on which I shall be brief as I am straying from the subject of the debate, is telecommunication masts and electrical transformers. Those ubiquitous and ugly developments must be subject to full planning permission with more public consultation, and mast sharing must be enforced rigidly where possible. I therefore welcome Cellnet's attempt to improve the design of masts through its student design awards and the fact that it is keen to promote more mast sharing as well as notifying local authorities and holding public meetings before making planning applications. However, the order concerning general committed development needs to be revised to give local planning authorities the opportunity to consult properly on intrusive developments.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that light pollution, especially in the countryside, is becoming a serious problem, particularly for Britain's thriving amateur astronomy industry?

Mr. Prior

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I want to make a few specific recommendations to the Minister, one of which picks up the hon. Gentleman's point.

First, the Government should publish a best practice guide on the design and siting of street furniture. The emphasis should be on minimising clutter and maximising local distinctiveness. Perhaps county councils could run local competitions. I hope that the countryside traffic measures group sees that as an important part of its role.

Secondly, planning controls should be extended to include the impact, siting and design of lighting. Why cannot lighting be traditional in design, be at a lower height, shine downwards and be a natural white, rather than a suburban sodium orange? There should be a presumption against new lighting on all roads. Perhaps the Government and local authorities should consider designating and protecting special dark areas.

Thirdly, the traffic signs regulation orders governing the erection of road signs and their supporting poles and structures should be revised to restrict the number of signs and reduce their visual impact. The environmental impact should also be reduced. A code of best practice should be published to encourage highways authorities to review the environmental impact of their signing policies.

Fourthly, new ways should be sought to reduce traffic speeds with minimal visual intrusion. For example, local authorities should have the power to impose a uniform speed limit throughout a village—possibly as low as 20 mph. Small country lanes could also be designated as quiet lanes. That would be a new category of road, with a lower speed limit than the current national 60 mph on A and B roads.

Fifthly, traffic calming schemes should make use of existing or traditional rural features, such as hedges, walls and bends in the road. Road straightening and verge elimination should be a last resort. Perhaps new research could be commissioned on safety. It is becoming increasingly clear that over-signing and road straightening are not having the desired effect. Indeed, in some cases they are having the opposite effect, as repetition reduces impact.

Sixthly, national planning guidance on outdoor advertising should be revised to reduce visual impact. The areas of special control should be widened and the current proposal for relaxing advertising restrictions on local authorities should be dropped.

The Department of the Environment acknowledged the problem of clutter in its discussion paper in 1994, launching its quality in town and country initiative. The Department accepted that the design and use of roads, the impact of parking, signs and roadside furniture all affect the quality of an area. It went on: The Government wishes to encourage traffic management schemes which show great sensitivity to the impact of a street on the local environment.…Everyone has a part to play…and local people can help identify surplus signs that;can be safely removed. Some county councils are starting to recognise the importance of the issue. In December 1997, Norfolk county council published a booklet called "Highway Corridor", which states: In a county with a strong, rural character as Norfolk, roads are also an integral part of our perception of, and access to, the countryside.…The design of signing, kerbs, lighting and surfacing and realignments will all affect the appearance of the surrounding rural countryside as does the maintenance of roadside boundaries, trees and verges. I strongly welcome the nascent co-operation of the Norfolk Society and the county council in the design process. I congratulate the county council on reverting to finger signposts in several instances.

I also congratulate Derbyshire county council, which has published an environmental code of practice on highway signs with the aim of creating a safe and well-managed highway while causing the minimum visual damage to the environment. That has to be a step in the right direction, but we cannot rely on a few forward-thinking councils. Central Government need to set an example and bring pressure to bear on councils and the Highways Agency.

I welcome the fact that the Minister of Transport understands that countryside clutter "provokes howls of displeasure", and is determined that traffic management schemes should meet environmental as well as transport objectives. However, we need action, not rhetoric, from the Government. We need a change in the psychology in the Department. The mindset of the Minister's officials must be changed. It is ludicrous that signs on the new Wymondham bypass in Norfolk have increased in size—and, of course, cost. I was depressed to note, as I drove along the A140 from Norwich to Ipswich last weekend, that bigger signs are in preparation.

The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions should urgently review the size and design of all road signs and establish a presumption in favour of small, well-designed signs. My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal started that change. There is a worry that the process has stalled. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us today.

I can do not better than to end almost where I started, by quoting from "Norfolk in Peril": One of Norfolk's greatest treasures has always been its remarkable network of ancient lanes and roads with their often narrow and winding routes; beautiful hedgerows and wild flowers; unspoiled verges and sheltering trees; the old discreet white direction signs; grass verged walkways and lack of urban concrete kerbs; and their unlighted beauty in a wonderful countryscape. These lanes and roads are the envy of the world. They are relatively unique as they follow, in some cases, very ancient rights of way. Their hedges and verges have been the home to a wonderful and varied wildlife. Their very narrowness and winding nature have served during this age of faster modes of transport to keep vehicles at low speeds. Thus have the wildlife thrived and these ancient ways have, in their own way, created a calming influence on those that might otherwise be tempted to speed through the countryside but simply cannot because of these beautiful in-built and meandering natural designs for traffic calming.

1.15 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Glenda Jackson)

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Mr. Prior). He had no need to apologise for or regret what he regarded as the dullness of the title of his debate. The issue that he has raised is of great importance. I am sure that all hon. Members have seen and been appalled by the consequences of ad hoc, unco-ordinated developments and decisions in the countryside.

The Government value the countryside highly as an environment in which people live and work and as one of this country's great assets. We are fully committed to the integration of environmental and transport issues at national and international level and at local level, as is well demonstrated in the topic that we are debating today. This is why we now have a Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, why we are developing an integrated transport policy, and why policy responsibilities for land use and transport planning have been brought together.

We have placed particular emphasis on the development of an integrated approach to transport and land use planning, traffic management and streetscape design in town and country. We have said that consideration of rural issues will permeate all our thinking as our integrated transport policy is brought together. That is why, among other measures, we are giving £50 million a year to rural transport, which will enable a substantial expansion in subsidised bus services in rural areas.

The Government believe that most of the day-to-day decisions that impact on the quality of the rural landscape must be taken locally in consultation with those affected. However, those decisions should be taken in the context of coherent policies and against a background of good practice.

We are actively encouraging good design in the countryside that takes account of the special character of a local area. Revised planning policy guidance note 7 reinforces that emphasis on maintaining and enhancing local distinctiveness. It promotes countryside design summaries and village design statements. Produced with the co-operation of local communities, they can bring greater confidence and coherence to design in a local area, and reinforce a high quality of design—a point that is clearly of particular importance to the hon. Member for North Norfolk.

On a practical level, the Department is a member of, and is actively supporting, the Countryside Commission's countryside traffic measures group—as is Norfolk county council. The group, which was launched last July, aims to take forward, in partnership with local authorities, demonstration projects that will investigate the extent to which local traffic management and traffic calming schemes can be effective in meeting their traffic objectives, while being designed with sensitivity to the countryside environment in which they are set, as well as forming part of wider traffic and transport strategies for a rural area.

The village speed control project—in which the then Department of Transport collaborated with the Scottish Office, Welsh Office and County Surveyors Society—showed that gateway features are not effective in achieving sustained speed reductions unless accompanied by additional traffic calming measures within the village. This highlighted the tension between the objectives of achieving reductions in noise and air pollution—as well as road safety improvements—through reducing vehicle speeds, and the direct, visually intrusive, effects of proven speed-reducing measures. The CTMG will provide the opportunity to discuss rural traffic management issues more widely, to share experience and to disseminate good practice.

We are bringing to this the lessons learned from working with the English Historic Towns Forum on the development of more environmentally sensitive traffic management measures in historic town centres. In particular. this exercise demonstrated the value of an interdisciplinary approach from all the professions involved in finding acceptable solutions where aesthetic and traffic management considerations are in conflict, and also the importance of consultation with all interested parties and the implementation of solutions that have the support of local residents and businesses.

Through research based on demonstration projects planned by the CTMG, we will examine and make proposals on the detail of design approaches and guidance which meet wider needs of traffic movement and road safety, while respecting the diversity and local distinctiveness of the countryside. The hon. Gentleman will be interested to hear that the demonstration projects include one to develop low visual impact and low-cost, traffic calming techniques on the A149 between Hunstanton and Cromer in his constituency. Other projects will be implemented in Cumbria, Devon, Hampshire, Suffolk and Surrey.

The Countryside Commission is also undertaking research to investigate a broad range of factors and how road use impacts on them and to identify suitable criteria for determining appropriate traffic calming measures in rural areas. A separate research project will be reporting soon on possible new and more sensitive approaches to design of traffic signs—I trust the hon. Gentleman will welcome that—other street furniture and road layouts.

A basic premise of the CTMG research will be that traffic calming and traffic management design solutions have tended to be applied too systematically and inappropriately in the countryside—a point made by the hon. Gentleman. In addition, the Countryside Commission is developing ideas for reducing the intrusive nature of traffic in the countryside and maintaining the tranquillity of rural lanes as part of a more holistic approach to traffic management.

The results of all these studies are intended to produce researched recommendations on good design practice which will be made available to highway and traffic authorities generally. The hon. Gentleman raised in particular the issue of sign clutter. We agree that traffic signs should not be put up or left in place unless they are appropriate for safe and efficient traffic management.

We are currently updating and revising the traffic signs regulations so that traffic authorities can use sign designs developed for new traffic management purposes without having to get them specially authorised by the Department—for example, speed camera signs. We shall continue to remind local authorities that they have a statutory duty under the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 to have regard to local amenity in placing signs.

We have also reviewed the previous Government's proposals for further relaxations in the design and use of boundary signs. We have concluded that there is no safety or traffic management benefit in signing boundaries of shire district councils, and that we should not encourage a proliferation of unnecessary signs by adding district boundary signs to the traffic signs regulations. We recommend, whenever possible, that local authorities review and audit their signs as an on-going process to ensure that they are still relevant and necessary, and that they are clear, well maintained and achieving their intended purpose.

We published updated guidance last November on the principles of good sign design. Chapter 7 of the traffic signs manual includes examples of how to design signs effectively so that they are not larger than they need to be for the information they contain. It also points out that yellow backing boards can be useful in some circumstances, but that they can also be environmentally intrusive and may be devalued by over-use.

The point has often been made to the Department that 30 mph repeater signs through villages are visually intrusive. However, it remains true that drivers are unlikely to observe the speed limit unless it is clearly signed and reinforced by the general road environment. The village speed control project—to which I referred earlier—was set up specifically to address this problem. Repeater signs are, of course, not required if a system of street lighting is provided—but this in itself is a controversial issue.

Some lighting schemes can appear inappropriate in a rural village, but lighting may be needed to help pedestrians and cyclists to move about safely. Street lighting can also help to reduce crime, and the fear of crime, by improving personal security. We recognise that poorly designed and installed street lighting can be unsightly and can detract from the visual amenity of the area. Uncomfortable, distracting glare and wasteful light pollution can result, but good design practices can reduce or eliminate these undesired effects.

With this in mind, my Department and the Countryside Commission last year published "Lighting in the Countryside: towards good practice". We believe this guide will be a valuable tool in showing local planning authorities, professionals and members of the public the benefits of good practice in this area, and how to a Street chieve it. I trust the hon. Gentleman will welcome that.

Achieving a high quality of design is particularly important for standardised equipment, which is a familiar part of the street scene in town or country. In sensitive locations, the design and siting of street furniture can be crucial in avoiding an impression of unnecessary or incongruous clutter. Others, including the Royal Fine Art Commission, have also expressed concern about this issue.

I hope I have made it clear that I am fully aware of, and concerned about, the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised, and that my Department is involved in a continuing process of developing good practice initiatives and guidance in consultation with the local authorities and other bodies responsible for the visual appearance of the countryside.

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