HC Deb 12 May 1999 vol 331 cc321-3 3.34 pm
Mrs. Helen Brinton (Peterborough)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to enable traffic authorities to make provision in rural areas for the designation of highways where pedestrians, pedal cyclists and horse riders have priority on the carriageway over mechanically propelled vehicles for the purpose of improving safety and protecting the character of the countryside; to make provision for reduction of the national speed limit for certain rural roads; and for related purposes. The Bill would give local authorities power to designate any rural roads in their areas for which they are the traffic authorities as quiet lanes, where pedestrians, horse riders and cyclists would have priority over motor vehicles. There would be a speed limit of 20 mph. Such designations would follow consultation with any affected parish or community council, other bodies or persons concerned with the protection of the environment, and representatives of road user groups or local businesses.

By amending the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984, the Bill would give the Secretary of State power to set a national speed limit for motor vehicles on all roads classified C and on all unclassified roads, of no more than 40 mph—at present, the limit is 60 mph; of no more than 20 mph on designated quiet lanes; and of no more than 20 mph through villages. A village would be a group of dwellings exceeding 50 per cent. of frontages on both sides of a road.

I am sure that the purposes of the Bill are clear. Its measures would improve safety on rural roads, encourage the enjoyment of the countryside and protect its character and distinctiveness from damage by unsuitable traffic and traffic speeds. The Bill will help to tackle issues such as traffic intimidation, to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions drew attention in last summer's transport White Paper.

That document spelt out the need and desirability of creating an integrated transport system, of encouraging forms of transport other than the car and of the greater use of 20 mph zones by local authorities. As it pointed out, in areas with such a speed limit, the frequency of accidents has been reduced by about 60 per cent. and accidents involving children have fallen by 67 per cent.

In 1997, 10 times more people were killed in accidents on rural roads than on motorways. Seventy per cent. of fatal car accidents occur on rural roads. While only 9 per cent. of all cyclist casualties occur on rural roads, those account for 45 per cent. of cycle deaths from road accidents. Those figures highlight the importance of the Government's national speed policy review to address the problems of rural roads through measures of the sort that are contained in the Bill.

In the previous Session, I obtained leave to introduce a Bill for "home zones"—zones in residential areas that have much lower speed limits, more pedestrian areas and design features that emphasise the change in priority from motor vehicles to people. I was delighted that home zones received several mentions in the White Paper and that the Department is working with local authorities that want to design pilot zones within current legislation. The Department is committed to a formal evaluation of those after a period.

The proposed quiet lanes and villages with lower speed limits are clearly parallel measures for the countryside. However, as the White Paper said: Traditional traffic management measures can have an urban look and can be even more damaging in the countryside than on the appearance of our towns. We will therefore encourage the continued development of new and imaginative ways of designing local traffic schemes to make them more sensitive to their surroundings. The Bill follows early-day motion 348 of the same title, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley), and which has, so far, attracted more than 150 signatures; I hope that it will gain even more. All hon. Members, on both sides of the House, appreciate his excellent and continuing work, which is part of the year-long campaign "Safer Country Lanes for All", which is organised by the Council for the Protection of Rural England. I hope that the House will agree that the measure is an essential part of that campaign.

I note that the recent report by the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs on the transport White Paper stated that the fear of traffic on country lanes has discouraged other users, such as walkers and cyclists…speeding traffic blights the lives of those living in villages and creates a perception that roads are no longer safe for all". The report recommended a national speed limit of 30 mph or less through all villages, including those on main roads. I am sure that we all know of rural areas that were, even until very recently, safe enough for walkers, cyclists and children to play in, which are now too dangerous because of increased traffic. I know of two examples in East Anglia: lanes around the village of Thornage in Norfolk, where the closure of the village shop and school have meant that residents have to drive elsewhere for those services; and Blackhills corner to Primrose corner near Norwich, where the lane has become a rat run for traffic wanting to avoid a longer link road to the west.

It is apparent from those examples that the causes of increased traffic in rural areas are very complex. Rural residents have to use their cars, if they own them, because of the lack of adequate local facilities and public transport. Traffic in rural areas is forecast to rise even faster than that in urban areas.

There are more cars on our roads in general, giving town dwellers greater access to remote areas than ever before. It is surely true to say that more people today can enjoy the relative peace and beauty of the countryside than at any time since the industrial revolution removed them for large sections of the population. In those days, the wealthy could of course continue to drive in and out of towns in their carriages.

It is apparent, however, that the quality of rural life, and even in some cases the survival of its distinctive character, are being fatally prejudiced by road traffic changes. The CPRE estimates the tranquil countryside lost in England in the past 30 years to be of an area the size of Wales. A lot of that is due to road traffic.

A survey in Shropshire found that 110 parish councils had approached the county council or local police over the previous 10 years because of problems of excessive speed. Another survey, in 1996, by the then Countryside Commission, showed that people in both town and country care about the countryside: 91 per cent. thought that society has a moral duty to protect the countryside. The Government have promised a rural White Paper later this year. It should address in an integrated way the issues surrounding the decline in quality of our rural areas. I believe that the measures in the Bill are an essential part of any attempt to reverse that decline. There is a need for new legislation to reduce speed limits and give local authorities new powers to designate rural roads where motor traffic will not have priority.

There are serious flaws in the current approach to managing speeding traffic, deriving from the self-fulfilling nature of the dangers: people increasingly avoid what they perceive to be dangerous roads and—surprise, surprise—local authorities then find that those roads are not much used by non-motor traffic, so higher speed limits seem appropriate.

I do not have time to expand on the technical points, but I am sure that Ministers and officials will be aware of the problems associated with the current approach to speed management. I hope that quiet lanes and reduced speed limits on country lanes and in villages will become part of Government policy.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mrs. Helen Brinton, Mr. Peter Bradley, Jane Griffiths, Mr. Tim Loughton, Mr. Andrew Stunell, Mr. David Kidney, Mr. David Drew, Mr. John Mc William, Dr. Ian Gibson and Ms Joan Walley.