HC Deb 05 November 2003 vol 412 cc799-803 12.30 pm
Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to create full statutory public consultation procedures wheresoever road traffic management schemes are proposed by local authorities.

Three hundred and eighty years ago a shaggy-haired troublemaker was arrested in the cellars beneath the House of Lords. Guy Fawkes and his gang wanted to blow up Parliament, but the Bill I present today is less dramatic: there is no gunpowder involved, no treason and—perhaps surprisingly—no plot. All I want to do is close a legal loophole and open up the process of democracy. My target—speed limits—might seem mundane, but the way in which speed limits are fixed has now become a muddle of paperwork. The process needs changing simply because it is out of date and denies local people any sort of intelligent consultation. My simple Bill would alter things for the better.

Back in 1984, Parliament passed the Road Traffic Regulation Act. It was the technical bible of its time, stating how speed limits were to be set, with the then Department of Transport in complete charge of all facets of the process. In the intervening 19 years, there have been unseen changes, usually made through secondary legislation—statutory instruments that, by their nature, are subject to little, if any, parliamentary scrutiny. As a result, power has shifted dramatically away from the current Department for Transport. The big local authorities now set most speed limits, and these days they rarely have to tell the Department what they are up to—in fact, in theory, they do not have to tell anyone much at all. The Department issues advisory circulars, but local authorities are left—rightly, in their eyes—to get on with it. It is the nearest thing to unfettered power that we have in this country.

All that a local authority with responsibility for traffic management—a county council, for example, although it could be another body—is obliged to do is advertise any proposed scheme in a local newspaper. Only one advertisement is required. The rules do not insist that it be carried on the front page; consequently, speed limit changes are always tucked away in regional newspapers, on the back page and in very small print. They are phrased in legalistic gobbledygook and are, for the most part, ignored or, worse still, totally misunderstood.

Local authorities do have a few legal obligations. They are supposed to consult the emergency services—after all, only the police have the power to enforce speed limits. However, there is no precise definition of "consultation". Details of speed plans and limits are usually sent to town and parish councils for comment, but the system is—dare I say it in this place—almost feudal. A bundle of official papers arrives on the desk of the clerk to the parish council: to his and most eyes, it looks like a fait accompli. Commenting or raising objections is not encouraged, and there is no legal arrangement for gathering any comments or, more important, for publishing them.

The catch-all phrase that we have all seen in so many statutory instruments and Department for Transport circulars is, "The local authority should consult as it sees fit." In other words, "Do what you like, chaps." That shows a touching faith in human nature by assuming that local authorities always do the decent thing. The trouble is that they do not.

Twelve months ago, Somerset county council came up with a wide-ranging new speed limit policy. It may have been, and probably was, conceived with the very best motives, including road safety, in mind, but it has proved a failure. Somerset now has hundreds more signs costing thousands of pounds throughout the county. I am informed that even the smallest signs—those of 2 ft in diameter—cost £70 each. The total bill for council tax payers is already hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Unfortunately, many of those signs contradict one another. There is a village in Minehead with 14 new speed limits, each of them different, within less than 250 yd. The forest of ironwork is ugly and, more importantly, some of the speed restrictions are incredibly dangerous. According to the police, they are liable to cause accidents rather than prevent them. There is already hard evidence that they have caused accidents. Do not take my word for it. Leading members of the Institute of Advanced Motorists have said that it is true.

The real abiding sore is that local people were not consulted first. It is the issue that has generated more debate, cross letters and public anger than anything in which I have been involved in Somerset for years. It is all because of lack of consultation with the general public. Parish councils were sent copies of the plans, but several of them now believe that they were duped. The documents supplied by the county council were insufficiently detailed for any informed comment to be made.

The councillors who lodged objections or made constructive suggestions about the scheme were totally ignored. Other parish councillors, who lobbied the county council to introduce new schemes, were also ignored. The message is, "If you don't want speed limits, tough; if you do want them, tougher still." That strikes me as a funny old way to run a policy.

Consultation is a buzz word of the age. Every hon. Member, political party and public pronouncement trumpets the value of consultation. The trouble is that we do not spell out what we mean by it. My Bill does. I propose a legal requirement for consultation. County councils would be obliged to take town and parish councils into their confidence at an early stage. Any objections would have to be published by the county council in detail, including its reasons for accepting or rejecting them. They would be duty-bound to hold well-publicised public meetings to assess local reaction to proposals and to publish that reaction before the proposal is enacted.

These are not revolutionary ideas. Many progressive county councils across England and Wales have already adopted the approach. If others did, I and other hon. Members would not be being bothered—but they have not.

In this instance Somerset has got it wrong. The county council knows it arid it has admitted it privately. We now have to reverse the process before there are more injuries and trouble. After 12 months of speed-sign chaos, the county council is surveying public opinion. It has issued detailed questionnaires and invited people to give their views. Rightly, it has set up a commission to enable that to be done. It is beginning to do the very thing that should have been done in the first place before the policy was enacted. However, we must remember that, regardless, Somerset is under no legal obligation to take a blind bit of notice of what is said, or even to publish the results after the horse-has-bolted consultation exercise.

That is why the Bill is necessary. It would stop what has happened in Somerset and elsewhere so that, anywhere in the country, people would rightly be consulted about their feelings. It would give town and parish councils a meaningful role in representing the views of local people; ensure that county councils come clean about their plans; guarantee that different voices are heard; help to prevent the introduction of costly schemes; save the taxpayer a great deal of money; and, above all, it would assist democracy. The National Association of Local Councils is backing it, as is the Campaign to Protect Rural England. The Bill is a simple, straightforward measure with a simple, straightforward purpose, and I commend it to the House.

12.40 pm
Mr. David Laws (Yeovil)

I understand why the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) has introduced his Bill, but his conclusions are wrong, and there is a danger that it could end up as a bureaucrats' charter. Consultation on traffic schemes is a major issue in Somerset, not least because the county council, as he implied, has introduced many speed management schemes to reduce accidents in accident blackspots and improve road safety outside schools. In addition, many rural communities and parish councils are unhappy with the fact that, by default, the speed limit is 60 mph in those communities. We need to consider what sort of consultation we need before such schemes are introduced. Contrary to the hon. Gentleman's comments, those schemes are often extremely successful—many in Somerset have cut injury accidents by up to a third.

There is substantial consultation before such schemes are introduced. Indeed, when implementing traffic management improvements requiring traffic regulation orders, Somerset county council consults in accordance with statutory requirements and best practice. It follows prescribed consultation arrangements and provides a site notice, and there is an opportunity for people to make representations, which have to be considered before any traffic order is confirmed. When a new speed limit is going to be introduced to address a known accident problem, there is extensive consultation of all the relevant bodies and individuals before a local safety scheme is established.

That consultation involves parish councils, district councils, local county councillors, the police, emergency services and members of the public who are directly affected by the scheme. As the hon. Gentleman suggested, adverts are placed in the local press in accordance with statutory requirements. In addition, the assistance of parish councils, and the use of their notice facilities, is regularly sought. Indeed, when local communities press for road safety schemes in my constituency, the criticism I often hear concerns the time taken to introduce them because of the consultation that has to take place.

The hon. Gentleman did not sufficiently highlight the fact that many of the schemes introduced by Somerset county council and, no doubt, other county councils are introduced at the request of parish councils. There is often a great deal of local concern about high traffic speeds and road safety outside schools.

The programme in Somerset was developed in response to countywide concerns about community safety and the impact of speeding traffic in settlements. The hon. Gentleman will know that there are 2,600 injury accidents on the roads in Somerset every year, and 45 fatalities. The measures put in place by Somerset county council are designed to make our communities safer, reducing the speed of traffic in settlements and the number of injury accidents. In view of those arrangements, it is difficult to understand how consultation could be further improved by any statutory requirement.

However, the county council recognises that not all highways authorities in other counties conduct the extensive consultations that regularly take place in Somerset. We can only assume that in his Bill the hon. Gentleman is seeking to make mandatory across the country the excellent best practice in Somerset. If he is trying to advertise the excellence of our consultation in Somerset and argue that it should he extended across the country, he will have our support, but I fear that his speech implied that we could end up with extra bureaucracy, more delay before the schemes are put in place and extra road safety problems and accidents. If that is what he is proposing, he will not have my support or that of my constituents. Such a proposal seems neither very conservative nor very sensible, and not in the interests of our constituents. Instead, it would be a bureaucrats' charter and delay useful road traffic schemes rather than ensuring that they were better.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Liddell-Grainger, Mr. Kevan Jones, Mr. Andrew Rosindell, Mr. Tim Boswell, Mr. Andrew Turner, Mr. John Burnett, John Thurso, Mr. David Clelland and Mr. Adrian Flook.