HL Deb 03 December 1984 vol 457 cc1145-51

5.26 p.m.

Lord Lyell rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 13th November be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move that the Road Traffic, Transport and Roads (Northern Ireland) Order 1984 be approved. This order provides for the extension and amendment of the three major enactments under which the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland exercises powers in relation to road traffic, transport and roads; namely, the Road Traffic (Northern Ireland) Order 1981, the Transport (Northern Ireland) Act 1967 and the Roads (Northern Ireland) Order 1980. The 1980 and 1981 orders were consolidation measures and so could not make provision in Northern Ireland for certain new powers made available in Great Britain. There is, therefore, an element of "catching-up" in the order before the House.

The order contains a wealth of detail, but I do not wish to lead your Lordships into an exact exposition on each provision, and I shall concentrate on what we see as the major changes. In the road traffic field, the two major items are the introduction of experimental traffic control schemes and increased powers to deal with the problems associated with heavy commercial vehicles. The power in Article 3 to provide for experimental traffic control schemes will enable the department to adopt a much more flexible approach in dealing with traffic control problems. At present, a time-consuming statutory process is required to amend a newly introduced traffic control measure which has not proved immediately successful. As noble Lords will know, there is often a considerable difference between theory and practice, especially in transport matters, and the new power will provide the department with a means of quickly amending a scheme or, indeed, of abandoning it completely. This will ensure that the most efficient and cost-effective measures are finally adopted.

The powers proposed in Articles 4, 5, 6 and 8 will strengthen the hand of the department and of the RUC in dealing with problems associated with heavy goods vehicles. All over the United Kingdom the parking of heavy commercial vehicles on footways and verges presents problems. These articles would prohibit this (with certain exceptions where loading or unloading cannot otherwise be carried out) and there would be enhanced powers to deal with unsafe and overloaded vehicles, including the provision to require a goods vehicle to proceed to a place not more than five miles away for the purpose of being inspected and to permit the use of dynamic axle weighbridges with which I am not familiar but on which one of your Lordships will no doubt be able to enlighten us all.

I should like to move on to the amendments to the Transport (Northern Ireland) Act. Articles 10 to 14 of the order provide for detailed amendments to the road passenger and road freight licensing scheme. Perhaps I may draw your Lordships' attention briefly to Article 11, which will permit the department to attach to road freight vehicles licensing conditions which relate to the parking of vehicles. These powers will be exercised in conjunction with those in Article 4 and will go a long way to dealing with the complaints which arise from the parking of heavy commercial vehicles in residential areas. Thus we are proposing an environmental as well as a transport improvement measure.

The major amendments to the 1967 Act relate to level crossings and to railway construction powers. Article 15 will bring Northern Ireland law on level crossings into line with that in Great Britain, and in particular will allow for the automation of crossings on private roads and for statutory consultations with district councils. Article 16 provides power for the compulsory acquisition of land for railway construction purposes and power for Northern Ireland Railways to construct railways. This power is not sought to facilitate any specific project, but rather as a desirable element in general transport planning.

The third series of amendments relates to the Roads (Northern Ireland) Order 1980. I would stress here that road humps are concerned. These are well known features to the people of the Province, as they have been used extensively as security measures. We now propose that they take on a speed control function and the Department of the Environment will be empowered to use such humps on roads where the speed limit is 30 miles per hour or where, indeed, it might be less. In effect the humps will be used to discourage unnecessary through traffic from using these roads, which are designed solely to serve residential areas. We hope that the humps will do this by slowing down the progress of vehicles along such roads and that they will, indeed, offer the residents an important road safety measure.

These are three small amending measures. I hope that I have spelt them out clearly to your Lordships. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 13th November be approved.—(Lord Lyell.)

Lord Underhill

My Lords, may I first thank the noble Lord the Minister for explaining the order and for doing so in such concise terms? Once again we see the problem of the position facing us on legislation affecting Northern Ireland. Here we have an order one part of which gives powers to construct railways. This is the position with which we have to deal regarding orders under direct rule. There is nothing at all in the order to which we take exception. Most of the provisions are very helpful and we would give them general support; but a number of points arise.

Article 3, which deals with the experimental traffic control schemes, makes it quite clear that where the department considers it appropriate to modify or suspend a scheme it may give, such public notice as the Department considers appropriate". There is no automatic provision for consultation with the appropriate local council. I know it may be argued that the department is the traffic authority and therefore there is no need, but one would have thought there would have been this provision for automatic consultation with the local council concerned.

Similarly, on Article 4, to which the noble Lord referred—the parking of heavy vehicles on footways and verges, which of course is much needed—I note that in the debate in other place on 28th November (at col. 1033 of the Official Report) the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State referred to the, danger and inconvenience to pedestrians, especially the blind. But this order deals only with heavy vehicles. Surely the same danger to pedestrians and the blind will be the position with all vehicles, not just heavy ones. References in the very helpful Explanatory Memorandum make it clear that many of the provisions of this order are to bring the position in Northern Ireland into line with that in Great Britain, but I notice that unless there has been a subsequent amending order—perhaps the noble Lord could explain if that is so—Section 36 of the Road Traffic Act 1972 applies to any motor vehicle in Great Britain, not just to heavy vehicles. Therefore I must ask why we have that particular limitation.

We note from the report of the Assembly that the Association of Local Authorities in Northern Ireland—incidentally this is very helpful although on this occasion there is no report giving discussions in the Assembly, merely the written evidence produced to it—suggested that there should be a prohibition on the parking on pavements and verges of all vehicles in excess of 3½ tonnes. If all vehicles are not to be prohibited, why does the order limit this only to vehicles above 7½ tonnes? The Assembly, through its Committee, suggested 5 tonnes. I can understand the Government's response explaining the various legal limits and the definitions of them; but why is there no Government response to the proposal of the Association of Local Authorities regarding all vehicles in excess of 3½ tonnes? Apart from the danger, the damage done to pavements and verges is as heavy with vehicles of 3½ tonnes as it is with those of 7½ tonnes. Again one has the problem of enforcement. We know the difficulty on the mainland of enforcing this provision. We do not want to see items of legislation introduced if they are not going to be properly enforced.

Articles 5, 6 and 8 all refer to the driving of overladen vehicles and the direction of them for inspection and weighing. I note under Article 6 that a new paragraph (4) in the 1981 order is to be inserted which refers to any person in charge of a stationary goods vehicle. I assume that this does not prevent a constable—I believe it applies to wardens as well—from stopping a vehicle which he suspects of being over weight and when it is stationary dealing with it accordingly under the order. Perhaps the noble Lord the Minister will deal with that point. There is a limit of five miles to which a vehicle, which is suspected of being overladen, can be directed for inspection and weighing. I note that in the Act for the rest of Great Britain—the Road Traffic Act 1972—reference is made to "Premises not more than one mile away". Is there some reason why in the Northern Ireland order we are laying down that it must be within five miles?

Article 9 refers to various amendments of the 1981 order and these are set out in Schedule 1; but having read Schedule 1—I may not be as clever as my noble friend Lord Prys-Davies who spoke on the previous order; I am certain I am not—I found great difficulty in ascertaining what the provisions are under Schedule 1. It deals with the control of traffic on roads, the amendment of certain penalties, speed limits and the warning of roadworks. Although I found the Explanatory Memorandum which the department issued of great help on most matters, it may have been useful if on this occasion they had listed exactly what all the amendments listed under Schedule 1 really mean and refer to.

Article 11 deals with the attachment of conditions to road freight licences. Additional conditions may be laid down regarding safe parking. Does this refer merely to the place where the vehicle is parked or will the conditions also cover the actual condition of the vehicle that is being parked? I am thinking in terms of security provision which would be just as important. Is this merely a condition about parking in residential roads or has it got other important provisions as well which would be very important in view of the conditions in Northern Ireland?

Article 15 lays down additional points regarding level crossings and a new Section 66 of the 1967 Act. Again one finds that this provision was not in the original draft order. It was not in the letter sent from the railway holdings company. This matter was not mentioned at all in the Assembly. I believe that these provisions are important. Is there some reason why they were not mentioned until the last moment? They did not appear in the draft order, they were not discussed by the Assembly and they were not even in the letter to the department sent by the railway holdings company. Is there some particular reason for that?

In respect of level crossings, the order states that the railway undertaking shall notify the local council, and any representations will be considered by the department. Is there some provision which I have not yet noticed for prior consultation as such with the local council before any order is made? In respect of the same provision for railways, we find in Article 16 concerning rights of way that the Assembly wanted certain changes. I accept the Government's response to that; but, again, there is no automatic provision for the area's local council to be consulted. One would have thought that the local council was one body that should be consulted about the abolition of rights of way and the diversion of rights of way.

Article 17 relates to road humps. As the noble Lord the Minister has said, the provisions are almost identical with those which Parliament has passed for Great Britain. Again despite the fact that the Assembly's recommendations in respect of two matters were supported by RoSPA, the Government's response to the recommendation that there should be at least a half-mile stretch of straight road and a review of accidents over three years before road humps are inserted is quite reasonable.

There is provision for publication of any suggested road humps in a local newspaper, and representations may be considered by the department. But again, there is no automatic provision for consultation with the local council. It may be argued—and I have raised this matter a number of times in respect of a various articles in the order—that the local authorities really function under the department which has many of these powers. One would have thought that if we wished to encourage local councils in Northern Ireland, there would be provision for them to be consulted on most of these articles.

Further, I note that, although there is provision for an inquiry into any representations made regarding proposed road humps, this is only, "if it"—and that refers to the department—"thinks fit". So we are giving considerable powers there, as to whether or not there will be an inquiry. Except for those points—which are questions rather than statements of difference—we welcome the general points in this order.

Lord Hampton

My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Lord for his introduction of this order, which agains seeks to bring our basic legislation up to date through amendments which have already been put into effect in Great Britain. I see nothing objectionable in the order, which is aimed at facilitating movement of transport in the Province. One could hardly complain about the possibility of experimental traffic schemes and making the parking of heavy goods vehicles in some circumstances an offence, or allowing for regulations about the use of level crossings, and so on.

I should like to ask two questions. First, I am still not quite clear about the road humps. How do the regulations differ in Northern Ireland, if indeed they do differ? Also, have security measures influenced that situation at all? Secondly, are inspections of goods vehicles to be made more frequently than in this country? I appreciate that with the enormous vehicles sometimes in use now, some inconvenience to the operator seems not unreasonable if it helps in public safety.

5.44 p.m.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I must once again thank both noble Lords, who have studied this particular order so closely. Above all, I should like to thank them for having spoken.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, was kind enough to welcome the order, but pointed out that he had a number of questions. I hope I shall be able to deal with most of them. If I miss any, then, with my usual defence mechanism, I shall write to the noble Lord. He asked your Lordships first to glance at Article 3. The subject of consultation was the theme of at least four of his questions—consultations with the district councils and with the local authorities. As far as Article 3 is concerned, it is not specifically provided that district councils should be consulted but this would be done wherever and whenever possible. I hope the noble Lord would agree that speedy amendment of a particular nature may be necessary, but I would stress to the noble Lord that consultation would normally be the case, wherever possible.

The noble Lord asked me also about Article 4, and the prohibition of parking by heavy vehicles. We appreciate that in Great Britain the legislation refers to a wider range of vehicles. When this matter was considered in Northern Ireland in conjunction with the Royal Ulster Constabulary, it was felt that enforcement problems might arise. The decision was taken to deal with heavy commercial vehices only. I am sure that the noble Lord, having studied the proceedings in another place, will have been aware that this problem is very serious, with heavy vehicles known as trailers and other vehicles tending to park even on hard shoulders, dual carriageways, and above all on grass verges. There was an interesting case near Newry where some specific masonry had been constructed so that lorries could not park, which they had been wont to do, tearing up the grass verges in the process.

To return to Article 6 and the third question raised by the noble Lord, I understand that power already exists in Article 57 of the 1981 order to stop vehicles. The new power we have will be used to deal with vehicles once they have been stopped. This point was raised in another place. The noble Lord has had visions of mobile guardians of the law chasing these vehicles. I hasten to explain that once the vehicles had been stopped, then we can enforce the regulations.

The noble Lord asked also about Article II. The conditions to be attached to road freight vehicle licences will relate to the place where the vehicle concerned will be parked. For example, it would be possible to prohibit the vehicle being parked outside the owner's house on a pavement. That is what we had in mind with these provisions. Whether security enters the arena is one of the considerations, but mainly they were environmental considerations, so that other people in a residential street would not find the pavement completely blocked by a very large articulated vehicle parked on the pavement, preventing other traffic from passing.

The noble Lord asked several times about level crossings. A provison was inserted in Article 15, I am afraid at a late date, because Northern Ireland Railways have embarked upon a programme of level crossing automation. At present, consultation with district councils is purely voluntary on the part of the railway company. But consultation will take place before the order for a particular crossing is sent to the department.

The noble Lord also asked about the five-mile limit in Article 6. This is related to the machines to which I have referred, and doubtless the noble Lord is familiar with them—the dynamic axle weighbridges which the department is installing. A distance of five miles will allow the maximum for the use of these particular machines; and it is the distances in Northern Ireland which are involved here. As for the queries raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, about road humps and the more frequent inspection of goods vehicles, perhaps he will permit me to write to him with the details on those two points.

I am grateful to both noble Lords who have spoken and for the detail with which they have studied this order. We have had a good run on these three complicated little measures.

On Question, Motion agreed to.