HC Deb 25 March 1998 vol 309 cc464-9 12.59 pm
Mr. Andrew Reed (Loughborough)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of the Rookery footpath in Barrow-on-Soar in my constituency. Once in a generation, a Member of Parliament makes a great speech. Unfortunately, this morning is not the time for that great speech in my parliamentary career. Many issues that arise in our constituencies daily are just as important to local residents as the big issues that we discuss here, and I am humbled to follow the debate initiated by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins), which dealt with a very important issue.

Hon. Members are driven into politics to discuss the big issues, to sort out major problems and to represent our constituents nationally, but every now and then a small event occurs which dominates one's postbag. This year, instead of receiving Christmas cards from the vast majority of my constituents, my postbag was inundated with 150 letters from the residents of Barrow-on-Soar about the temporary closure of the Rookery footpath in Leicestershire.

The footpath was supposed to be closed for six months, but it became clear from my discussions with local residents, the parish council, the county council and Railtrack that this was a saga: the temporary closure has lasted 12 years. On finding that a footpath is unsafe, the traffic authority—in this case, Leicestershire county council—can take out a temporary closure order under section 14(1) of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984, as amended. Whenever such issues arise, hon. Members find themselves looking up pieces of legislation of which we were previously unaware. That Act was never high on my reading list, but since Christmas I have become increasingly aware of its effects.

I wish to explain what has happened in the case of the Rookery footpath. The action that I have taken so far has generated much local interest, and I am sure that it will lead to the footpath being reopened by the end of the year. I hope that this case will serve as a lesson throughout the country. Temporary closure orders that last 12 years or more are unacceptable, and I hope that we can ensure that they are not automatically renewed, as happens currently. When the county council asks for an extension of the temporary closure order later this year, I hope that a condition will be put on the order that the path be reopened.

This issue has generated a great deal of local interest. I congratulate the local press and the work of my constituents, particularly Dr. Earl, a parish councillor who has taken on this issue single-handedly and been a constant pain and threat to the county council.

I wish to declare an interest. Before 1 May last year, I was employed in Leicestershire county council's department of planning and transportation. I dealt with issues that were far removed from this one, as I was in the economic development unit and had no dealings with footpaths, so I cannot be blamed for the fact that the footpath has been closed for the past 11 years. I declare an interest because I know of the hard work and sincerity of all the officers at Leicestershire county council in dealing with this matter since I took it up.

It is always easy for Members of Parliament to criticise public servants for lack of action. When I go through the catalogue of disasters, delays and prevarications, hon. Members will see why some members of the public are right to wonder what has been happening over the past 12 years.

The Rookery footpath is important for a number of reasons. It is a cut-through from Humphrey Perkins school in Barrow-on-Soar to the village where I live, Quorn. It was used by a number of elderly residents, who remember it well, and unfortunately it is still being used by many pupils from the school.

The first order for closure was taken out in June 1986 because a wall adjoining the footpath was deemed unsafe—part of the granite was in danger of falling off, presenting a danger to individuals using the footpath. The footpath cuts through from Cotes road alongside a number of houses and crosses a busy and dangerous midland main line railway track. I use the line regularly, so I have been underneath the bridge and know that trains travel along that track at well over 90 miles an hour. It is important to reopen the footpath as soon as possible for the sake of the pupils and others who are still trying to use it. We all know the consequences of young children trying to cross railway tracks in front of fast-moving trains.

When the footpath was closed on 27 June 1986, it was unclear who owned the wall. Twelve years later, it is still unclear, which is why the footpath has remained closed. The first order was an emergency measure, which was supposed to last for just 14 days. Later that year, an order for a further three months was secured. I have a catalogue of the dates, from 1986 to January 1994, when further orders and the consent of the Secretary of State were secured. The Government office for the east midlands, as it is now known, became so used to extending the order that it did so without being asked. In 1995, the Secretary of State granted an extension to the order without the county council asking for it, so it seems to have become a piece of correspondence that went out regularly and automatically.

Unfortunately, on a couple of occasions the order lapsed by mistake, and the county council has admitted responsibility for that—a new order should have been made early in 1997. We now appear to be back up to date with the temporary closure orders and to be covered until July 1998. I hope that the Secretary of State will then find a way to ensure that work is carried out so that the path can be reopened within a reasonable time.

Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

From what has been said so far, it is not clear to me whether the delays have been caused mainly by uncertainty about ownership, by a lack of funds for the repair of the boundary wall or by a lack of political will.

Mr. Reed

I was coming to that. Ultimately, the reason for the delay is the fact that the wall's ownership is in question; but the estimated cost of repairing the relevant part of the footpath is between £30,000 and £60,000. The county council—rightly, I suppose—does not want to be responsible for the repair of the wall and the reopening of the footpath at a possible cost of £60,000 if that proves to be the responsibility of some other body. Given the proximity of the footpath to the railway, it is felt that Railtrack and its former incarnation, British Rail's property arm, must bear some responsibility. The present reason for the continued delay is the fact that the county council is taking advice in order to ascertain the ownership of the wall and hence to establish when the footpath can be reopened.

As I have pointed out to constituents who have written to me, even if the county council is shown to own the wall, local councillors will have to decide how to find the £60,000 that is needed for its repair—and rightly so. If I may put it crudely, £60,000 equates to two teachers, or two or three social workers. It must be recognised that the county council has responsibilities. It has a financial responsibility, but it has another responsibility as well.

I am aware of the interest of my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor) in the right to roam and other issues relating to footpaths. I feel strongly that an issue here is the need to ensure that, where footpaths are provided, we make them available to the public. That applies particularly when public safety is involved, as it is in this instance. We rightly criticise farmers and others who cover and close footpaths, but in this case a democratically elected body—a county council—is doing that, entirely legally. I want to draw attention to the prevarication that seems to have taken place—although I am pleased to say that our actions are moving things forward.

Mr. Taylor

My hon. Friend is right to say that I have a direct interest in the matter. There is a similar problem in my, neighbouring, constituency. Has it ever been established, as a result of investigation, whether the repairs could be carried out as part of a community project? That happened in the village of Thringston when I was a district councillor. Admittedly it was a larger project, but it seemed to resolve what had become an impasse.

Mr. Reed

We have not conferred about that, but the answer is yes. Dr. Earl, one of the parish councillors, has suggested that option. The county solicitor has said that the estimated cost of the work—£60,000—is so high because it will be done by hand. I am not sure by what other method the council envisages the wall's repair, but in my constituency—and no doubt that of my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire—such repairs have been done before. Similar walls have been repaired in Birstall, where I was a councillor, under Government schemes.

I am sure that today's debate and the action taken by the county council in the last week and a half have produced light at the end of the tunnel. I am convinced that, because of Dr. Earl's work and that of the parish council—and, as I have said, my brief airing of the issue today—more has happened in the past three months than has happened in the past 12 years. I am grateful for that. I know that the county council and Railtrack are now negotiating, and I think that the footpath may be reopened as a result.

I hope, however, that the Minister will be able to say something about the legal aspects of temporary closure orders. An extension requires the consent of the Secretary of State, but there is no limit to the number of extensions for which he can provide. If an order is extended, the local authority need only advertise that. Given the position relating to the footpath—which I am sure is repeated throughout the country—we must ensure that, in future, temporary closure orders are not extended without question.

I hope that, by the time the Minister is able to respond—by producing legislation, or in other ways—the footpath will have been reopened; but I also hope, for the sake of future generations of footpath users, we have gone some way towards dispensing with a ridiculous anomaly.

1.15 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Angela Eagle)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed) on securing the debate.

Leicestershire county council's temporary closure of the Rookery footpath is clearly an important local issue, and I share my hon. Friend's disappointment about the length of time for which it has been closed. However—as my hon. Friend may have realised from my reply to his recent parliamentary question—responsibility for the closure rests squarely on the shoulders of the county council, and the Government's ability to exert influence is limited.

The Secretary of State's role is restricted to considering requests by the county council to extend the life of temporary traffic regulation orders closing the footpath. Such an extension was last granted on 19 February 1996, with an expiry date of 31 July 1996. The county council did not apply for a further extension, and the order lapsed. I understand that the council made a fresh order in February 1997, which was subsequently discovered to be invalid and was replaced with yet another order in January this year. That order will expire in July if it is not extended by the Secretary of State.

In considering a request for extension of the expiry date, the Secretary of State will look for evidence that the views of local users have been taken into account by the authority, but in a case such as this, in which there is a danger to public safety, those views will inevitably be given less weight. Having said that, I must emphasise that the 52 letters received recently by the Government office for the east midlands postdated the Secretary of State's consideration of the council's latest request for an extension.

The retaining wall alongside the footpath has not collapsed during the many years for which the closure has been intermittently in force, but that does not mean that its condition is without risk to the public. If the county council and its engineers have concerns about the safety of the retaining wall, it is right for the Secretary of State to take serious account of them.

There have been complaints about a lack of consultation by the county council. The legislation does not require such consultation to take place—although, given such a prolonged and sensitive closure, the council might well have benefited from explaining its proposals better rather than relying on statutory public notices.

I assure my hon. Friend that extensions to temporary closure orders are never made by Government offices unless requests are made for them to do so. I also assure him that, should the council apply for an extension of the expiry date of the current order, the Secretary of State will take full account of the points that have been made today and in letters from residents. If the Secretary of State decided that an extension should not be granted, the council would be at liberty to introduce a fresh order, but would be obliged to wait for three months before doing so.

I note the calls for the Secretary of State to intervene or to require the holding of a public inquiry, but there is no provision for that in the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984, as amended by the Road Traffic (Temporary Restrictions) Act 1991. I suspect that my hon. Friend already knows that.

I am alarmed to learn of the risk to children who continue to use the footpath by climbing on the outside of the footbridge over the railway, but I understand that the county council has recently installed more and improved fencing and barriers to prevent such use.

I am pleased to hear that the county council has reopened a section of the footpath north of the railway to enable better access to properties on Cotes road. However, I note that, as the footbridge remains closed, that will not provide schoolchildren with the short cut they want to the south side of the railway.

I share the concern of my hon. Friend and his constituents about the use of temporary orders to close a footpath intermittently for 12 years, but I am encouraged by the fact that the Government office for the east midlands is taking a robust line with the county council. When, in February 1996, the most recent extension of six months was granted, the Government office asked the county council to consider promoting a permanent order, as that would enable objections to be heard and a public inquiry to be held.

I am disappointed that the county council seems to have disregarded that advice, and I express my dissatisfaction at the time that it is taking to resolve the problem and reopen the footpath. It is difficult to see how the delay can be consistent with the general duty on rights-of-way authorities under the Highways Act 1980 to maintain a public right of passage.

I am particularly disappointed at the prolonged closure of the footpath, as it flies in the face of what we want to achieve through an integrated transport policy. The Government recognise the flexibility that the car can bring and the fact that, for many people, the car has become a necessity, but the forecast growth in traffic is clearly unacceptable because of its environmental and economic effects. Forecasts suggest that, unless we change our travel habits, traffic levels will be between 36 per cent. and 57 per cent. higher in 20 years' time than they are now.

It is conceivable that some parents in Barrow-on-Soar are taking their children to school in Quorn by car following the closure of the Rookery footpath. The reduction in our dependence on the car through providing genuine alternatives and promoting walking, for example, is central to our achieving a more sustainable transport system. Consequently, failures to minimise the time during which footpaths are out of service do nothing to help, and much to harm, our collective efforts to bring about the changes that are necessary if we are to modify people's travel habits—we must work hard at that.

We shall set out the national policy framework for integrated transport in the forthcoming White Paper on transport, but delivery will rest with local partnerships. We very much hope that, across the country, schemes will be dealt with rather more effectively than has been the case in the unfortunate example that my hon. Friend has described.

I understand that the county council has now received advice from leading counsel about liability for the repair works to the retaining wall alongside the footpath.

The council's solicitor is now acting on that advice to ascertain who is liable for the repairs to the wall. I understand that the council hopes to complete those legal inquiries within the next month, after which it will meet Railtrack and the British Rail Property Board to take matters forward. In the meantime, the council's engineers are considering what measures could be implemented to reopen the footpath.

I can only hope that the county council's optimism is rewarded and that a solution is found quickly to the impasse that has resulted in the closure of the Rookery footpath for such an unacceptably long time.