HC Deb 28 November 2000 vol 357 cc798-800
4. Mr. Ian Stewart (Eccles)

What response he has received from local government to his proposals on highway maintenance. [138938]

8. Mr. Ivan Henderson (Harwich)

What plans he has to deal with the repair backlog on roads. [138942]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill)

Local government has welcomed the significant increases in resources nationally for capital expenditure on local road maintenance. As set out in "Transport 2010: The 10 Year Plan", we are committed to providing sufficient funds to tackle the backlog of expenditure—estimated at £9 billion—on carriageway, footway, bridge and street lighting maintenance in the next 10 years.

Mr. Stewart

That statement will be welcomed by my constituents in Eccles. Does it mean that local government in Salford and Greater Manchester will not have to continue the daft practice of building much-needed road calming measures on roads that are full of potholes and craters? My hon. Friend mentioned street lighting. Will he assure me that the improvement in street lighting will benefit the people of my constituency, particularly the elderly, as it will improve security and safety?

Mr. Hill

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the warm welcome that he gave to our announcement on roads maintenance. He will be aware that the previous Conservative Government left our local roads in their worst state of maintenance since records began. To restore the backlog in roads maintenance, we are providing over the next 10 years an extra £9 billion, which is 41 per cent. above current funding. In the same period, we shall also clear the appalling backlog in street lighting. Next year alone in Eccles and Salford, road maintenance funding will increase by no less than 87 per cent. The end of potholes is in sight for the people of Eccles and Salford, and, in due course, they will be able to see their well maintained roads.

Mr. Henderson

May I tell my hon. Friend the Minister how welcome the massive increase in road funding is to Essex? By 2003, it will treble to £15 million the amount given to Essex. I hope that my constituents in the villages of Parkeston and Jaywick will benefit from the increases, which should help them with the poor roads and street lighting left by the Conservative party. Has my hon. Friend received any feedback from Essex county council on that good news for Essex?

Mr. Hill

My hon. Friend is right; the increase is excellent news for Essex. I am bound, however, to refer to a news release published on the day of the announcement. It appears on Conservative central office notepaper and was written by the leader of Essex council, a certain Lord Hanningfield. It is headed "Too little, too late". The noble Lord went on to say:

This isn't new money at all. That contrasts with the same day's news release from his cabinet member for transportation, Councillor Ron Williams. That document is headed "Major boost for road maintenance". Councillor Williams went on to say: This is really good news for Essex. We must now look carefully at how we can invest this large settlement in the most cost-effective way to ensure greatest benefits are achieved. I know what I trust—not the knee-jerk propaganda from Tory central office, but the honest view of the local man who really knows: Councillor Ron Williams, God bless him.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

That was great knockabout stuff from the Minister. I am most grateful to him for repeating a press release written by one of his Labour stooges. [HON. MEMBERS: "He is a Tory."] He may call himself a Tory; nevertheless my point remains.

Will the Minister explain whether we are talking about new money from central Government, or supplementary credit approval, which will mean that local government, rather than central Government, has to incur debt?

Mr. Hill

Borrowing approvals are the standard means by which the Government fund local authority capital spending. The costs of repayment and interest on the borrowing are funded through the revenue support grant settlement. Using borrowing approvals gives authorities more flexibility in using their resources. Indeed, they have been seeking such flexibility. I suppose that that is why the approvals were introduced by the previous Government.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

Will the Minister comment on the ruling in another place that local authorities will not be required to grit their roads this winter? That could have a major effect on my constituents. My area contains the Winsford rock salt mine, the country's sole supplier of rock salt for gritting roads, so jobs could be at stake there. In addition, the ruling raises many serious issues about cutting corners and putting lives at risk.

Mr. Hill

The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point. We are aware of the judgment to which he referred, and we are studying its implications carefully. We hope to make an announcement in due course.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

Does my hon. Friend have any plans to return to local authorities powers to co-ordinate the disruption caused by utilities? In Cambridge there has been complete gridlock during the past few weeks, as every major road into the city has been dug up by a different utility.

Mr. Hill

My hon. Friend makes an extremely serious point that is universally understood. Street works are a problem in all our cities throughout the country. First, my hon. Friend will be aware that the New Roads and Streetworks Act 1991 allows local authorities to charge utilities for overstaying in street works. We hope to introduce regulations to implement that shortly.

Secondly, my hon. Friend will know also that the Transport Bill contains provisions for lane rental, which is widely supported. We have said that we will hold those provisions as reserve powers for the time being, but if co-ordination of street works by utilities does not improve, those powers may be invoked in due course.