HL Deb 22 April 2004 vol 660 cc38-58GC

A report on the scale, activities and effectiveness of the work of the traffic officers shall be presented on an annual basis to Parliament by the Secretary of State."

The noble Lord said: The amendment is supported by what I believe to be a unique coalition—certainly in my experience—of the noble Lords, Lord Marsh and Lord Rotherwick, and the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, who have kindly supported other amendments that I have tabled for this Committee.

This amendment seeks to establish a procedure for the publication of an annual report on the work of traffic officers. In other words, it would give Parliament the opportunity to monitor and scrutinise the impact of their work each year. I imagine that a number of straightforward aspects would be included in that report, such as the cost of running the service, the degree to which the work of the officers has contributed to tackling congestion, and the contribution they have made to increasing road safety and to keeping traffic moving.

It is also important that the Government bear in mind that there is huge support for the Bill, particularly among road safety organisations. As this is the first time that I have spoken this afternoon, I declare an interest as President of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents—an unworthy successor to my noble friend Lord Davies of Oldham, who talked me into taking on that job when he joined the Government. While there is enormous support for the Bill, there are two concerns which the publication of an annual report would help to address. Both issues were referred to earlier.

One is the need for assurances that the work of traffic officers to keep traffic moving after a serious road incident does not conflict with the police investigation into it. It will also be important for the report to demonstrate that there is appropriate guidance and training of traffic officers to show that they are able to deal with incidents and respond to them.

The second issue, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, is the question of what the 550 traffic police will be doing if they are freed up for other duties as a result of the establishment of the Highways Agency's traffic officers. There is much concern that there has been such a decline in traffic police numbers—around 12 per cent of designated roads police between 1997–98 and 2001–02. It is essential that that is also monitored.

Such matters as those can be included in an annual report. I hope that it is not a controversial proposal and I hope that the Government will see fit to support the amendment. I beg to move.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market

I wish to offer my support, although I did not put my name to the amendment. I am sure that a report to Parliament with such information will be a riveting read and I expect that people will speak of little else in the pubs of Needham Market when it comes out. I look forward to many happy hours reading it. The amendment is important when considered in the context of the powers that are allowed for in Clause 8. If we are to have a Bill that contains so much authority for the Government to introduce wide-ranging new powers by statutory instrument, the basis upon which we assess whether those powers are needed and the effect of those provisions is important and needs to be sound. On this occasion, unusually for me, I support the production of yet another glossy document for parliamentarians.

Viscount Astor

I have added my name to the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester. I am sure that the Minister will say that an annual report on the work of the traffic officers could be incorporated within that of the Highways Agency, or something like that. That is, of course, correct and, no doubt, we are all used to reading Highways Agency reports avidly when we cannot go to sleep at night. Such reports state how much money has been spent, how many people are employed and various other facts.

One of the reasons that I support the amendment is because of the very issue that the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, raised about the powers contained in Clause 8. The amendment requires a report on the "activities and effectiveness" of the traffic officers. That is the important part, because otherwise we shall just have a normal departmental report on how much money they have spent, how wonderful they are, what their pension contributions are or whatever. It will not reveal what we really wish to know and what Parliament will consider in future. I am absolutely convinced that the Government, in whatever shape or form, will be under enormous pressure to come back and change the powers of the traffic officers.

So we will clearly need to know, over a period, how effective traffic officers have been. This is the way that the matter should be dealt with so that the department has to explain its activities and how effective they are. When we deal with such issues in future we shall be able to judge the criteria and see how well the system is working.

Viscount Goschen

I support the amendments for the reasons put forward, particularly by my noble friend Lord Astor, and with the provision, perhaps, of a sunset clause on the matter. We wish to avoid endless piles of documents and having to come back with primary legislation to amend the Act. I would have thought that if the system has not worked itself out within the first five to 10 years of operation, then there will be a serious problem. So, publishing an annual report for up to, say, ten years would be a worthwhile exercise. I suggest that after that, we will all have become bored with it, we will have forgotten about the matter and may wish to move on to another set of officers.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

I hope that I can reassure everyone who has taken part in the debate that we are all on the same side. An annual report of the Highways Agency's work is already presented to Parliament. It includes a thorough report of its activities and its achievements against a set of performance indicators. It is quite a tough document. This reporting requirement will in the future include details of the new traffic officer service. As my noble friend Lord Faulkner suggested, he has anticipated some of the matters that will be in the report. We expect to report on the effectiveness of service including the impact of congestion, safety benefits, costs and public perception gained through customer services. We would certainly take on board my noble friend's two points—matters which he wished very specifically to see in the annual report.

I hope that I have persuaded noble Lords that this will not be, as the noble Viscount. Lord Astor, said, a woolly annual point about pensions and everything else. We take on board absolutely the need to report annually in a very hard and objective way. With that assurance, I hope that my noble friend will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

I think that that is a rather encouraging and helpful reply. I appreciate what my noble friend has just said. I also very much welcome the support from noble Lords opposite who spoke earlier in the debate. It is important that this information is not just lost in the Highways Agency annual report. The work has to be properly highlighted and it has to give rise to a proper discussion. That may be one way in which the concerns of the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, about it being an unnecessary publication can be avoided. However, as long as the information is published and made available to Parliament and an opportunity is given for a debate to take place on it, then I think that that will meet the requirements that I set out in tabling the amendment. With that assurance, I am happy to beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 13 [Power to acquire land]:

[Amendments Nos. 52 and 53 not moved.]

Clause 13 agreed to.

Clause 14 [Financial assistance to authorised persons]:

[Amendments. Nos. 54 and 55 not moved.]

Clause 14 agreed to.

Clause 15 [Interpretation of Part 1]:

[Amendments Nos. 56 and 57 not moved.]

Clause 15 agreed to.

Clause 16 [The network management duty]:

Lord Faulkner of Worcester moved Amendment No. 58: Page 7, line 22, after "expeditious" insert ", convenient and safe

The noble Lord said: It is the same gang of four who signed this amendment as signed the one we have just discussed. I am very pleased indeed to move Amendment No. 58 and to speak also to the others that are grouped with it. This is what one could describe as the road safety group of amendments in the Committee today. What I want to achieve by tabling the amendments is to ensure that the network management duty on local authorities does not conflict with road safety aims. The network management duty, of course, is to secure the expeditious movement of traffic. It is important that that objective is not pushed to the fore in a way that ignores the needs of all road users, including pedestrians and cyclists.

This amendment would clarify the point. It does so by repeating the phrasing on network management found in earlier Acts of Parliament. For example, Section 122 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 places a duty on local authorities, to secure the expeditious, convenient and safe movement of vehicular and other traffic (including pedestrians)".

That phrasing also appears in Section 42 of the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994.

My other amendment, Amendment No. 73, which is grouped with Amendments Nos. 58, 59 and 60, through to Amendment No. 65, deals with the issue of road hierarchies, so that local authorities would be enabled to undertake an analysis of roads according to their current and desired function, to redesignate them and to set speed limits accordingly. The principles underlying that issue were laid out in the Government's road safety strategy, Tomorrow's Roads: Safer for Everyone.

Road hierarchies would have substantial road safety benefits, as they would allow speed limits and road safety measures to be implemented on the basis of road usage and road risk. Tomorrow's Roads suggested that primary legislation would be necessary to introduce that; and Clause 18 of the Bill would seem to be a suitable legislative opportunity. Road hierarchies would also create a framework for the effective management of traffic by allowing local authorities to categorise roads by desired function. I beg to move.

6 p.m.

Lord Rotherwick

I rise to speak to Amendment No. 94. Clause 31 talks about the word "traffic" including pedestrians and I welcome what the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, says about bicycles—as an avid bicyclist myself too, would like to be certain that "traffic" includes bicycles. However, looking at the matter, I wonder whether "traffic" should mean all road users.

It is not just bicycles that we should consider. There is the question of horses—we see them moving to Hyde Park, with many types of people riding them. We see hunts crossing main roads. Indeed, what about the Household Cavalry going to mount a guard? Will we see a mounted traffic officer in the near future? What about mounted guardsmen at St James's? Will we see a traffic officer take over from the police and relieve them of that duty? What about demonstrations? What about the Notting Hill carnival? Is it envisaged that the traffic officers should look after those people? Should the interpretation of "traffic" not just include pedestrians and bicycles, but all legal road users? Perhaps the Minister could answer those questions.

Lord Bradshaw

I rise to say that we are perfectly content with the amendments and believe that they add to the Bill. They cover types of traffic or people who are frequently ignored by local traffic authorities. I do not believe that this has anything to do with traffic officers. This is a separate issue of the management of networks by local government. It is opportune to make it obligatory on such people to consider cyclists and pedestrians and, taking the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, it is important that we consider horses and other road users.

Lord Berkeley

I shall speak to all of the amendments in the group, particularly those in my name—Amendments Nos. 61, 65 and 94. I believe that we are all trying to achieve the same objective, which is to make sure that all road users are included—and I welcome my noble friend's confirmation that "roads" in this case include footpaths and pavements, and that is important. I am being somewhat cautious, having regard to the debate on whether Clause 8 should stand part of the Bill, when my noble friend the Minister tried to say that traffic officers would be the motorists' friends. That is clearly welcome, but I hope that they will equally be the pedestrians' friends, the guardsmen's friends, the cyclists' friends and friends of anyone else who uses the highway.

Therefore, it is important that the needs of all road users are taken into account when considering the question of securing the expeditious movement of traffic. I expect that eventually traffic officers will have targets and guidance on that to accompany the Bill. When we begin to have indicators to measure congestion, we shall also need some measurement of safety and of ease of transit for pedestrians and cyclists as well as motorised vehicles. I am not sure how that would be done, but one can give many examples.

When one crosses Hyde Park Corner as a pedestrian or cyclist, one sees that the traffic lights are set to ease the flow of road vehicles. A cyclist or a pedestrian travelling at a normal rate faces a red light every time, but car drivers do not. I hope that my noble friend will take that matter into account when considering the issue of guidance. I believe that Transport for London is doing a great deal to help in that respect, but many other local authorities are considerably worse. They make pedestrians wait. You press the button to cross the road and you have to wait for a minute-and-a-half before the light turns green because it is always set on green for the road users. Why should pedestrians not be able to move on immediately as car drivers do?

I believe it is terribly important that all the network management duties apply to all users equally. I, together with other noble Lords who have spoken to the amendments, am not convinced that all the amendments fit together. However, I am sure that if my noble friend accepts the principle, someone can come up with a grouping which responds to all the concerns that we have identified.

Lord Davies of Oldham

The grouping of these wide-ranging amendments gives us the chance to debate a very important consideration—the question of the safety of traffic. I use the word "traffic" because I shall argue strongly that it should be recognised that traffic certainly includes cyclists. In an increasingly wide range of local authority obligations, "traffic" also relates to the proper rights of pedestrians. I heard what my noble friend Lord Berkeley has just emphasised. There are many ways in which pedestrians can feel that their interests are not taken into account in the same way as are other types of traffic.

However, the response to the broad issue of safety is clear. My noble friend Lord Faulkner, speaking from his great experience of safety issues, referred to Section 122 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act, which contains the phrase "convenient and safe". As he will recognise, the provisions of that Act remain in force. Therefore, we take an overarching and governing position with regard to the obligations, which include the very important concepts of safety that he emphasised. The question is whether the Bill would be enhanced if we explicitly added the concepts of safety and the convenience of traffic when traffic officers exercised their duty.

In drafting the duty, we have been concerned to ensure that the expeditious movement of traffic is not at the expense of other obligations, policies and objectives. That is explicit in Clause 16(1). The existing responsibilities and duties of local authorities remain as before. As I have indicated, they include the important issue of safety. Of course safety is important, and it will remain a high priority.

We have purposely avoided including lists of obligations to avoid appearing to attach less importance to others by virtue of omission. Anything that was not included in any such list would look as if it were no longer the responsibility and duty of traffic officers. That is why I wish to defend what I recognise my noble friend has found a degree of fault with. I seek to defend the general concept of the responsibility while he, quite rightly, emphasises that that must include safety. I want to give him an assurance that it certainly does.

Ultimately, the objective in this part of the Bill is to encourage authorities to devote more attention to managing their road networks actively and to manage the traffic using them. We would not wish to lessen the focus of the legislation by including other issues, no matter how worthy—and I cannot think of any more worthy than the one which my noble friend has introduced of safety—on the face of the Bill. The guidance on the network management duty is probably the place to draw out these points while maintaining the duty in a meaningful form.

Amendments Nos. 60 and 64 seek to make an explicit reference in Clause 16 to the fact that in the context of the network management duty, traffic includes pedestrians. Amendments Nos. 59 and 63 aim to enhance this by stating quite clearly that the term covers more than vehicles. Similarly, Amendments Nos. 61 and 65 seek to reinforce the term "traffic" by providing that it includes cyclists and pedestrians. The amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Berkeley deals specifically with cyclists.

Clause 31 already states explicitly that traffic includes pedestrians, and, of course, cyclists are included in traffic. Elaboration on the scope of the duty is surely best left to guidance which the appropriate national authority can issue under Clause 18. The draft of the guidance, which has been placed before the Committee, clearly draws out the fact that pedestrians are covered by this duty. I emphasise again that cyclists are already widely accepted to be traffic and authorities clearly need to take account of their needs.

Amendment No. 73 relates to road hierarchies. I do not think that this would have a great deal of effect. Clause 17(5)(a) covers the issue of hierarchies by requiring that the arrangements authorities make to meet the duty must include specific policies or objectives in relation to the different roads or classes of road. Clause 18 allows the guidance to cover any other matter relating to the performance of the duties imposed by Clauses 16 and 17. On that basis, I think the issue which my noble friend raised about hierarchies of roads is covered.

That leaves me, at the last, with the question of guardsmen and those on horses. I remind the Committee that, as Captain of the Yeomen of the Guard, I have the interests of my fellow officers very much in mind, whether they are on foot or on horseback. I certainly would not be party to a Bill which in any way, shape or form infringed their safety while going about their lawful and essential business. So I assure the noble Lord that when we refer to "traffic", we also include horses.

6.15. p.m.

Earl Russell

If the Minister will forgive me, there is one category that he has not mentioned, and that is skateboarders. Do they count as pedestrians or as vehicular traffic? The question is a worrying practical one.

Lord davies of Oldham

The answer that am being given is singularly inappropriate; namely, that it is a grey area. I should have thought that, whatever skateboarders may be, they do not comprise a grey area. I cannot give an immediate answer to the noble Earl but I shall take his question on board. When we considered whether we had covered all aspects of traffic, I must say that is one consideration that eluded us. It ought not to have done. I am grateful to the noble Earl for reminding us of it.

Lord Tordoff

While the noble Lord conducts that intense research on skateboards, will he please include roller skates as well?

Lord Lucas

I hope that I may ask a similarly tactful question; does the road network include BOATs?

Lord Davies of Oldham

I do not know whether the noble Lord refers to boats that are powered or to boats that are towed behind vehicles.

Lord Lucas

I refer to byways open to all traffic.

Lord Davies of Oldham

We are talking about highway traffic. I have yet to see a boat sail up any of our motorways or trunk roads.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

I am sure that the Committee would not object if my noble friend wished to reinforce his point about his duties as Captain of the Yeoman of the Guard if he were to wear his uniform at the next sitting of this Committee.

I appreciate very much what my noble friend said in response to the debate. He made a number of very important points. I should like to look particularly carefully at what he said about safety. I am not sure that safety can be omitted simply because one does not want to create a list. I shall want to look very carefully at the wording that he used. As I say, I appreciate the way in which he responded to the debate. I also appreciate the contributions that other noble Lords have made. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Berkeley

Before my noble friend does so, I hope that I may return to the words, securing the expeditious movement of traffic". As has been said, that phrase includes cyclists and pedestrians. Clause 31 states, at line 17, page 14, that "'traffic' includes pedestrians". I wish to press my noble friend a little further on that point. If "traffic" includes pedestrians, surely it would not do any harm to include cyclists in particular in that definition in Clause 31, which applies to Part 2 of the Bill. Then there would be no need to have any amendments on cyclists with regard to Clause 16. Adding the two words "cyclists and- to the definition in Clause 31 after the word "includes" would make the cyclist lobby, which is quite vociferous, very happy.

Lord Davies of Oldham

I am very eager to make the cyclist lobby happy, not least because there is an intensive lobby in this House and in the other place in the form of the parliamentary cycling group. However, when we refer to other traffic we include all traffic other than pedestrians. The reason we specify pedestrians is that they are additional to all traffic whereas cyclists and officers on horseback are part of all traffic.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 59 to 65 not moved.]

Viscount Astor moved Amendment No. 66: Page 7, line 25, at end insert"; and (c) facilitating overall transport policy objectives set out in relevant local transport plans, and in London the Mayor's transport strategy and local implementation plans and regional transport strategies

The noble Viscount said: Amendments Nos. 66, 71 and 80 would put the network management duty into the wider context of local transport plans. As the Committee has discussed, the expeditious movement of traffic has always been a duty of traffic authorities. The debate surrounding integrated transport policy in recent decades has concerned how to balance that duty with other transport and community objectives. We believe that either this clause is a superfluous and unnecessary repetition of existing legislation, giving directions which could equally well be set out in local transport plan guidance, or that it gives undue emphasis to only one part of a transport authority's wider duty to publish and implement a comprehensive and integrated local transport plan.

Network management is about more than just facilitating the expeditious movement of traffic, and to specify a duty as this alone (but having regard to other duties), appears to be an over-emphasis. This amendment to acknowledge the existence of wider LTP objectives would ensure that excessive emphasis would not be given to traffic movement by either the local authority or any imposed traffic director.

The House of Commons Transport Select Committee report on the Bill makes it clear that it feels that, as worded, the Bill gives the impression that the statutory duty to secure the expeditious flow of traffic should take precedence over wider integrated transport and environment policies. I refer to paragraphs 9 and 10 of that report.

I turn to Amendment No. 71. The arrangements appear to be specified in the relevant clause only as actions to identify and respond to disruptions to traffic rather than to put network management in the wider transport and other council policy contexts. Again, as with the previous amendment, network management is an existing part of these wider duties. If the appointment of a network manager is to be necessary, the clause could still require an appointment but with the individual's duties set clearly in the wider policy context. That should ensure that the position is not possibly interpreted locally or by outside interests as having overarching powers over other aspects of local transport policy.

I hope that that slightly convoluted explanation of the amendments illustrates the thrust behind our concerns on Clause 16 and the network management duty. I beg to move.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market

I am grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, for tabling this amendment as it gives me an opportunity to ask the Minister what on earth Clause 16 actually means. It begins by stating: It is the duty of a local traffic authority to manage their road network". Indeed, it always has been the duty of local authorities to manage their road networks. It has certainly been the case over the past 15 or so years, certainly since I have been involved in local government, that, increasingly, management of the highway network has changed in response to both community and government aspirations regarding other policy objectives, such as the reduction of noise, improving safety, improving air quality, providing bus and cycle lanes, and so on. Those policies and certain planning policies have a profound effect upon the network and the way in which local authorities manage it. Local authorities want to be able to make those choices in a way that reflects the aspirations of local communities.

Clause 16 begins by asking local authorities to do something that they already do. Then it adds the caveat that local authorities must do that, so far as may be reasonably practicable having regard to their other obligations", which is what they are trying to do at the moment. The clause then states that local authorities must consider how they can make, more efficient use of their road network", and seek the avoidance and elimination of congestion. Either the entire clause is simply a "motherhood and apple pie" provision and is included merely so that the Government can tell the road lobby that they have done something, or it will result in guidance being issued to local authorities obliging them to give greater precedence to the narrow aspects of traffic management than to other matters, such as safety, air quality or noise.

From the point of view of local authorities it is very difficult to see what Clause 16 seeks to achieve. I am very grateful for the opportunity to raise this matter and seek clarification from the Minister with regard to the Government's intentions in this regard.

Lord Marsh

I should like to follow that point. This part of the Bill is crucial for the entire Bill, if that is not considered to be the case, everyone is wasting an awful lot of time here. While it quite properly lays out local authorities' responsibilities and so on, my understanding and hope is that it also recognises that, particularly in London, there is a crucial need for a much more co-ordinated approach to the entire question of not transportation—I must stop using these Americanisms— but of transport in London.

I consider networking in terms of the networking of the entire system. Those of us who have seen the control centre realise that modern science has produced the means of managing the entire system in one go. That is happening. The problem is that the very best local authorities have very good approaches and programmes for within their local authority areas but, 50 yards away, that conflicts with the next local authority that has a different approach to the matter.

I may be wrong but I feel strongly that this is the most important part of the Bill. It concerns an urgent and necessary matter but it requires us to get away from the concept of looking at this point and that point. We need a co-ordinating system for the network in London and Greater London.

Lord Lucas

I entirely agree with what the previous two speakers have said. The LGA has produced a briefing that clearly shares the concern about what the clause means and whether it gives primacy, rather than parity, to certain duties.

The draft network management duty, which the Government have circulated, is very emollient about these matters. It states that, the duty is placed alongside all the other things that an authority has to consider'', and that it is to be viewed as part of the wider road network and should be integrated with the ditties of neighbouring authorities. However, I find it very hard to read that into the wording of the Bill. Clause 16 includes the words, so far as may be reasonably practicable". If I were to place a duty on the Minister to turn up for lunch tomorrow with me, so far as may be reasonably practicable", I would expect him to shift most other things except possibly the death of his mother-in-law into second place. I would expect him to give real priority to turning up. I think that is the ordinary English usage of the phrase.

However, if I wanted to express what the Government seem to think this clause means, I would say, as far as may be reasonable", and make it a much gentler duty to achieve these things. Many things need to be set alongside the duty that we are discussing. In the ordinary English reading of the phrase, anyone would expect to give the duty priority, and the first thing they would have to do would be to dig up all the speed humps.

Earl Russell

Do not the words, "as far as is reasonably practicable", include traffic conditions? I remember one occasion when Barbara Castle as Minister of Transport was due to speak at an election meeting. She failed to arrive because it took her three hours to travel the length of Park Lane. She had attended as far as was reasonably practicable.

Lord Davies of Oldham

I am not so sure that some of us, even in our present state, could not manage to walk the length of Park Lane in less than three hours. Therefore, there was an alternative strategy on that occasion.

I turn to the issues raised by the amendments. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, for giving the clause the importance that it merits. The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, identified the present responsibilities of local authorities. We all know that the best authorities discharge those responsibilities so far as is practicable. However, the issue involves giving emphasis to the problem of congestion as it extends beyond local authority boundaries. As the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, emphasised, that is a particularly important matter in London but it is by no means confined to London. The problem of congestion is acute right across the country and certain factors cannot help but increase road usage. We aim to ensure that they do not increase road congestion as that already strains the patience of our fellow citizens to the utmost.

Road usage is destined to increase according to all the analyses of economic factors such as car ownership, increased leisure time and people's desire to use the roads for a multiplicity of reasons. As the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, identified so accurately, the clause emphasises the responsibilities that we are discussing. It is the centrepiece of the Bill. The clause encourages local authorities to devote more attention to traffic management. The objectives, policies and obligations mentioned in the clause are already wide enough to ensure that a local traffic authority is able to consider local, regional and national plans and strategies where they are relevant to the performance of its network management duties. I ask noble Lords opposite to withdraw their amendments as the clause already contains powers to consider other factors. At the same time it places the necessary emphasis—which is at the heart of the whole Bill—on dealing with congestion in an integrated and concerted way.

The amendments seek to prevent the arrangements made for meeting the duty conflicting with other plans and strategies. However, it would indeed be surprising if there were not some divergence between this duty and other obligations. If that were the case, I do not see why the other obligations should take precedence over the duty—quite the opposite should be the case. What we are seeking—

6.30 p.m.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market

What would happen if the relevant obligations comprised other government obligations? Many towns across the country have islands of land that have been cut off by urban dual carriageways and therefore have not been developed. We have all seen those derelict islands of land. In seeking to meet the Government's objective of developing brownfield land, many local authorities have reduced the road space on either side of the islands of land, put in more crossings and made the land accessible so that it can be built on. That meets a government objective of using brownfield land but it also reduces road space and therefore possibly adds to congestion. Local authorities want to know which objective has primacy. How many directions can local authorities cope with at one time? That is at the heart of the concern about primacy.

Lord Davies of Oldham

I recognise that local authorities spend all their time trying to balance the conflicting demands of their electorates—those demands often conflict—with demands from government and other agencies. However, as I think the noble Baroness will recognise, the problem with the amendment that we are discussing is that it would appear to give precedence to other duties when the purpose of the Bill is to make the tackling of congestion a priority. Through the actions of traffic officers we seek to improve the way in which we tackle congestion on our roads. We ask local authorities to give primacy to that issue particularly as regards co-ordinating their actions with those of local authorities beyond their boundaries, as I emphasised a few moments ago.

Viscount Astor

On this point of primacy I have a concern—and it may be an unnecessary concern. If this primacy is given, could a local authority that has either pedestrianised the streets, or wishes to pedestrianise part of the town, be prevented from doing so because we have a primacy as regards the road network managing of traffic?

We all know of towns in which high streets have been pedestrianised where one could argue that that has disrupted the flow of traffic in the surrounding area. Would those circumstances make it difficult—I see the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, nodding her head—for a local authority to introduce a pedestrian area, or would they affect the rules that apply to some streets that are pedestrianised, even though they are not pedestrianised all the time—they are sometimes pedestrianised only at specific hours of the day? I am concerned about that overarching primacy as well as the whole of Clause 16.

Lord Lucas

Perhaps I may chime in on the same issue. The noble Lord says that there should be an elevated level of priority for these duties, but paragraph 13 of the draft Network Management Duty states that, the duty is placed alongside all the other things that an authority has to consider, and it does not take precedence. So, for example, securing the expeditious movement of vehicles should not be at the expense of an authority's road safety objectives". Either I am misunderstanding this, or I misunderstand the noble Lord. The two do not sit together.

Lord Berkeley

Before my noble friend responds, I have been interested that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, have been talking about the problems of primacy in keeping the traffic moving; and, therefore, perhaps local authorities cannot pedestrianise a street or a town centre. I would suggest that they fall into the trap of assuming that traffic merely equals cars, because pedestrians will find it much better in a town centre. I do not know how the Government intend to measure that. If we are talking about traffic including cyclists and pedestrians, there must be some means to balance the needs of pedestrians when they are crossing dual carriageway roads, as the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, said. That has to be balanced with this primacy for keeping all traffic moving, including pedestrians.

Lord Davies of Oldham

I am grateful to my noble friend. It was an entirely appropriate rejoinder to the noble Viscount, Lord Astor. Local authorities will need to balance their responsibilities. As I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, they do that all the time. We recognise that there are conflicting obligations upon authorities. There are always such issues to be confronted.

The Bill seeks to give effect to a new structure regarding our general position to deal with issues of traffic congestion. We merely seek to identify for local authorities the necessity for effective management of their road networks in the decisions they take, with the issue of congestion being an important issue to consider.

Of course if the choice is between pedestrianisation for the benefit of the town and closing a road, a local authority may well believe that it would better serve the needs of its electorate by pedestrianisation. Who would gainsay such an initiative? At other times it may be that other priorities with regard to development take priority. Surely, it is right that through this legislation we should expect local authorities to address themselves to the issue of congestion. In doing that they should recognise that there is a great deal to be achieved by closer relationships with neighbouring authorities. That is particularly true in our great conurbations, especially with regard to London boroughs and London, but it is true across the country. I do not seek to suggest that what we have sought to do is to elevate the question of road congestion as the top priority for local authorities to address. That would be a ridiculous concept and nor would local authorities for one moment countenance such a proposition. However, they will understand that it is right that the Government should put in place measures that tackle the ever-growing problem of traffic flows and the barriers to traffic flows for the convenience of their electorate. It is important that in doing that we have a strategy and provision for emphasising the significance of the position. The amendments would remove the ability of the national authority to take the necessary steps to achieve the network strategy and management duty for which they are responsible.

I recognise that we shall have considerable debates about the role of local authorities in respect of traffic management through many stages of the Bill. But this is the broad clause that the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, emphasised is absolutely critical to the Bill. For that reason I resist the amendment.

Lord Marsh

The problem with the Bill is that, in common with me, few people in the nation have taken on board the powers of this part of the Bill—Clauses 18, 19, 20 and particularly Clause 21 on the intervention orders which states: If the appropriate national authority is satisfied that a local traffic authority are failing properly to perform any duty under sections 16 and 17 it may, by order made by statutory instrument (an 'intervention order'), make provision for or in connection with the appointment of a traffic director". If it works and if the Government are serious about it, this is a body that will have power to enforce a proper network management process. In an area like London, that is long overdue and if it works it will be a godsend to everyone.

Lord Lucas

Am I right to conclude from what the noble Lord has said that this draft network management duty is what I should take as my Bible in understanding what the Bill is meant to achieve? Therefore, the words, so far as may be reasonably practicable", should not be in the Bill because they impose a primacy on the duty and that, in accordance with paragraph 14 of the draft network management duty, we should seek to impose some kind of' a duty on authorities to communicate with, or to have regard to, the needs of their neighbours. Paragraph 14 appears to be entirely without support in the Bill. There is no duty in the Bill that a local highway authority should conduct itself so as not to cause congestion in neighbouring areas. It is expressed as a pious hope—one with which I agree— in the draft management duty. If the draft management duty is where we should be, we need to make some amendments to the Bill. Does the noble Lord agree with that?

Lord Davies of Oldham

I do not think that I can agree until I see the colour of' the amendments of the noble Lord. I make the obvious point: road users do not identify boundaries between local authorities; they travel on roads and the roads cross authorities. I return to the point that I am trying to express as forcefully as possible and which has been accurately expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Marsh: we need co-ordinated strategies between authorities. The purpose of the Bill is to emphasise that authorities need to manage their roads and their traffic cognizant of that requirement.

I recognise that local authorities have competing obligations—that is in the nature of their work. What is quite clear is that this legislation will emphasise a greater role for the local authorities to address themselves to traffic management. Should they fail lamentably, there is provision for action to be taken. because action needs to be taken where we are not able to tackle congestion satisfactorily.

6.45 p.m.

Viscount Astor

It has been an interesting debate. The reason why Clause 15 is so important, as the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, alluded to, is because it sets up the provision of' a very wide-ranging power in Clauses 20 and 21. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, said that it includes pedestrians. Traffic can be backed up for half a mile, but you have to have an awful lot of pedestrians before they are backed up for half a mile. Pedestrians are occasionally impeded because the synchromesh on crossings is wrong and they might have to wait a minute, but you do not get lines of pedestrians.

This clause changes the emphasis for local authorities. The Minister admitted that expeditious traffic movement has always been the duty of local authorities, but they have always balanced that with other community objectives. I believe that the clause gives a certain primacy to traffic movement—it changes the balance. The Committee needs to be aware of that. It might be argued that that is a good thing—the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, certainly seems to favour that argument. But we need to be aware of how important this clause is.

The Minister said that my amendments are unnecessary. The more he says that, the more I wonder how necessary the clause is. The clause is necessary if we are seeking to change the emphasis and give a much stronger duty to local authorities to ensure a flow of traffic over the other concerns of the community. That is what it does, and we need to be aware of it. If we are not—and the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, recognised this—we will need to consider it, particularly when we reach later clauses. I suspect that when we look at the powers that the later clauses will provide, we might look at Clause 16 again on Report to find out whether the Government have it exactly right. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Rotherwick moved Amendment No. 67: Page 7, line 25, at end insert—

  1. "(c) ensuring that the authority's road network is maintained in a condition fit for its purpose; and
  2. (d) ensuring that any defects are remedied as soon as may be reasonably practicable"

The noble Lord said: The amendment probes the Government on the precise nature of the network management duty: what it entails, how the responsibilities are prioritised and who can assess compliance. As it stands, the network management duty seems to include most responsibilities placed on highway, street and traffic authorities. To raise the standard of network management across all local authorities, the Secretary of State will be able to issue statutory guidance. I believe that this is mentioned in the regulatory impact assessment.

There are some serious questions about how local authorities should be assessed to be in compliance with their network management duty. If noble Lords are convinced of the need to establish a network management duty in addition to existing powers, the Committee needs to ascertain what difference this clause will make on the ground in local authorities which are visibly failing in their duties to highway maintenance.

Reports and briefings by the AA and RAC have shown us that many local authority highway departments are facing serious problems and are not clearing backlogs of essential maintenance. Insufficient attention to highway investment leads to danger for all road users: two-wheelers, be they manual or motor-powered, pedestrians and car drivers. We have discussed this matter in previous amendments. These dangers can be fundamental, such as lacking properly painted, highly visible white lines and fully maintained traffic lights or ensuring that overhanging shrubbery is cut back.

Some councils are clearly already failing to perform existing duties. However, the Minister in another place has quite rightly stated that central government intervention would be appropriate only in the most extreme of extreme cases. It is therefore necessary to ask what tangible benefits will be accrued from placing a network management duty on local authorities which are already failing on maintenance. What can the clause do to raise the standard of local network management while keeping local democracy and accountability intact?

Given that the draft guidance in reference to Part 2 has been published only very recently, can we be assured that local authorities and local councillors will be able to settle on their own priorities for highway maintenance without imposition from the Government? Indeed, we need to know how compliance with the network management duty is to be assessed. Clause 16(2), at line 27, refers to local traffic authorities taking, any action which they consider",

will lead to the objective of the expeditious movement of traffic. As the clause stands, therefore, it appears as though the local authority itself will be the subjective arbiter of what is reasonable.

In order to ensure that the network management duty central to Part 2 will indeed make a positive contribution without central government intervention, it is necessary to resolve all these issues. I beg to move.

Lord Lucas

I have an amendment in this group as well. This is starting a discussion which will continue with a number of my later amendments—the relationship between traffic and the other users of the road space, principally the neighbouring businesses and householders. If I want to make changes to a property that borders a highway, I may well need to park a crane and take up part of the highway for a while. If I want to be connected to some new service, such as broadband or cable, I may need, particularly if I am a large commercial concern, to cause considerable disruption to the highway. How are these highway authorities to balance the conflicting demands on them?

As the Bill stands—this comes back to what I was saying on the last grouping—I do not see what guidance the Government are intending to give local authorities on how to balance these duties. Are they to say, "No, Lord Lucas can wait six months for his broadband because we have a nice, pretty, new street and we are not going to have anyone digging holes in it"? Or will they say that there has to be a reasonable balance between the proper provision of services to people's neighbouring highways and keeping traffic flowing and the highways pretty? I do not see how that balance is expressed in the Bill. The amendment is merely an attempt to draw that out from the Minister.

The Earl of Erroll

The amendment is highly relevant. Something which I have been lobbied about quite a lot is the problem of connecting people to broadband. People think of the road network in terms of carrying the physical communications traffic. It also carries the electronic traffic under the roads, in conduits. That electronic information—IT traffic—is essential to the well-being and the future of the country and small businesses. If it is not taken into consideration and people cannot get fast, expeditious and timely connections on to the electronic traffic highways—the backbone of the Internet or whatever it might be that they need to communicate with—then businesses can suffer. If you cannot get repairs done or new connections made, it will make life very difficult. Therefore, it has to be taken into account at an early stage when people are planning these things.

We have had a lot of discussion about "practicable". I feel that "so far as is consonant with" is a rather good alternative expression.

Lord Davies of Oldham

I am grateful to noble Lords who have contributed to the debate. However, I remind the Committee that the duty in Clause 16 is focused on managing the road network and the traffic using it. There is already a separate duty on local authorities to maintain their roads. As they would be the first to point out, this depends upon the resources they have to fulfil this obligation. The Government have greatly increased funding to local authorities for maintenance in our recent decisions.

It goes without saying that maintenance is of importance to the road network, but it is not the basis and the objective of the Bill. The duty we are talking about here is managing the network effectively. The amendment would be unlikely to change any position with regard to the obligations of the local authority to maintain its highways which are the subject of other provisions.

I regard Amendment No. 67 as well meaning; it is concerned with our roads being in good condition. We all recognise that inadequate maintenance causes delays and difficulties. But it is not appropriate to a section of the Bill which is concerned with the broader strategic aspect.

The purpose of the network management duty is to encourage local authorities to weigh up competing priorities and co-ordinate their works to minimise disruption. I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, have said. Of course there are very good reasons why the roadway needs to be interfered with for the provision of services. That is the nature of the problem that we all recognise.

No one wilfully digs up a road. I know that stories are legion in which people maintain that something has been extracted from the Louis Blanc field of socialism, 1848, whereby men dig up roads for the sole purpose and enjoyment of digging up the road, thereby apparently accounting for an increase in national productivity. However, no one seriously believes that our problem revolves around the issue that people arbitrarily and meaninglessly dig up roads. They all have a good reason for digging them up. The problem is that each and every one of them does it severally in an unco-ordinated way, and that leads to under-use of the network simply because our roads are constantly disrupted by these factors.

In seeking to defend the Bill, I am not discounting the very important considerations about the provision of services which would require the highway to be interfered with. The Bill is seeking to achieve some degree of priority by the local authority, so that that activity is co-ordinated and we minimise the loss of highway usage by such means.

Of course highway maintenance is bound to form an important part of the duty. I share the desire for authorities to take care of the infrastructure so that not only is it safe but its lifespan is maximised. Placing specific requirements on the face of the Bill is not the way to do it. Again, it leaves us with the problem of what we have left out if we draw up a list. Secondly, these considerations can be referred to in statutory guidance, which is a more appropriate way to discuss them than in primary legislation.

Amendment No. 67A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, also seeks to add an additional strand to the network management duty. Local traffic authorities will be required to minimise the disruption by other users as far as is consistent with safety and the efficient provision of services to the customers of commercial concerns.

The duty already covers the causes of disruption that the amendment seeks to address. The consideration of wider issues such as safety are taken into account in the clause. Clause 16(1) is clear on that. It allows the local authority—and I am looking at the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, as I make these remarks— to have regard to other obligations, policies and objectives when exercising the duty, but it clearly indicates to a local authority that we need some priority in this area. We need a recognition by local authorities that congestion is an important issue that can be tackled more intelligently within the framework of the provisions of the Bill.

Expanding the network management duty in the way suggested by the noble Lord would dilute its focus. We have already had several other equally valid representations, which I am sure the noble Lord would recognise, on why they should be identified as considerations to be taken into account. If we sought to do that we should be faced with an inexhaustible list. In doing so, we would still be open to the charge that we had left out crucial areas. Statutory guidance, which is given on the basis of this measure, will be the basis on which these kinds of issues should be sorted out. On that basis, I hope that noble Lords will recognise that they can safely withdraw their amendments.

7 p.m.

Lord Lucas

Yes, of course. My amendment was merely a probing amendment. I am delighted to have heard a statement of the Government's position. We shall come on to the substantive questions later in the Bill. The Minister again reiterated the phrase "some measure of priority" being given to the network management duty. That is what is in the Bill, it is not what is in the draft network management duty. Perhaps the noble Lord could write to me. I must ask him to try and reconcile the words in the draft network management duty with the words in the Bill. They just do not hang together. I will not try to persuade him from one course to another, I would just like to make sure that the Bill does what he wants it to do. At the moment the two do not work together. I would love to have a letter explaining how they are seen to work together.

Lord Davies of Oldham

I will certainly address my mind to the point the noble Lord so reasonably makes. We have a long way to go with regard to this section of the Bill. It may be that we have a framework within which we can satisfactorily tease out these issues as we discuss the Bill. If not, I shall certainly take steps to write on the matter to the noble Lord and to all Members of the Committee.

Lord Rotherwick

I thank the Minister for giving considerable clarity on the issue. Of course we shall go away and look at it carefully. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 67A not moved.]

Clause 16 agreed to.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

This may be a convenient moment for the Committee to adjourn until Tuesday at 3.30.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Fookes)

The Committee stands adjourned until Tuesday at 3.30 p.m.

The Committee adjourned at live minutes after seven o'clock.