HL Deb 14 June 1990 vol 520 cc467-73

7.2 p.m.

Lord Brougham and Vaux

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

In moving that this modest measure be read a second time, I should like to thank the Member for Nottingham, South, Mr. Brandon-Bravo, for his help, not to mention the assistance of my noble friend on the Front Bench and of the officials in the Department of Transport. The main provisions of the Bill as it is drafted—I shall return to this point later—are designed to enhance highway authorities' powers in the area of temporary traffic regulation, to relax existing requirements on local authorities, to seek the Secretary of State's consent for extended restrictions, to secure uniformity of approach among all authorities in Great Britain, and to sort out one or two unreasonable anomalies in the existing law. Those are reasonable objectives and are the result of wide consultation over some years with local authorities which have welcomed them.

Clause 1 together with Schedule 1 embodies the substance of the Bill in making new provision for the temporary regulation of traffic by means of orders and notices. At least 15,000 such orders are estimated to be made by local highway authorities alone every year. The schedule contains substitute versions of Sections 14 and 15 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984. The main effect is to introduce a new power to make short-term restrictions for no longer than five days for the purposes of road works by means of a more rapid notice procedure. Experience shows that to be a reasonable objective. The duration of other kinds of notices would be extended from 14 to 21 days.

However, there will always be a requirement to have regard to alternative routes before introducing temporary traffic regulations which will cover both notices and orders. The Bill also provides for enhanced powers to regulate traffic on alternative roads affected. It further allows authorities to make equivalent provision on trunk roads with the Secretary of State's consent. All this will avoid the present cumbersome process which requires the Secretary of State to deal with such matters himself in separate orders.

The new Section 15 removes the present three months' time limit on orders for local highway authorities outside London except with the Secretary of State's consent. This is replaced by a standard limit of 18 months, extendable in the case of essential road works or in other cases where a temporary order is to be followed by an equivalent permanent order. Throughout the history of traffic regulations there has been progressive relaxation—and the time is now ripe to relax them in this area also.

Local highway authorities are responsible bodies and should be allowed to proceed with local road works without the need for reverting yet again to the Secretary of State. The other main change is to allow the Secretary of State to prescribe the necessary procedures by means of regulations. That is already the case in respect of other traffic orders. The change will secure greater consistency and flexibility for futher adjustment. I do not imagine that the procedures will be greatly different. The Bill defines their scope and the 1984 Act provides that they will need to be subject to prior consultation with all the representative bodies, including the local authority associations.

Subsection (5) of Clause 1 rectifies an anomaly. Your Lordships may be surprised to learn that exceeding a temporary speed limit in a coned-off area of a motorway—a contraflow section—does not carry the same penalty as elsewhere on the motorway. The penalty under Section 14 attracts a maximum penalty of Level 3, which is currently only £400, but is not subject to obligatory endorsement or discretionary disqualification. That must be put right as it is monstrous that a driver who indulges in dangerous driving in a coned-off area of a motorway cannot suffer the same punishment as a driver caught doing the same thing on the open road.

Clause 2 is mainly technical. It provides for the necessary repeals or amendments of enactments in the light of the Bill, including further repeals by order after consultation. It provides also for commencement on an appointed day.

At the outset I indicated that I would return to the main provisions of the Bill. Due to the procedures of another place there was not time to resolve concerns about temporary orders affecting traffic, other than motor vehicles, on a footpath, bridleway, cycle track or byway open to all traffic. These concerns were raised in amendments proposed by the Ramblers Association and the British Horse Society. It was therefore agreed that the Bill would be amended at Committee stage in your Lordships' House to meet the concerns of those two organisations. I shall table amendments for the next stage to meet that undertaking. I shall if I may, to save time at Committee stage, briefly talk about them now as they are straightforward, and then, with the leave of the Committee, move them formally en bloc.

The amendments would introduce a shorter period of six months as the maximum permitted duration of temporary orders relating to footpaths, bridleways, cycle tracks or byways open to all traffic, instead of 18 months for all other orders. The six-month period may be extended by the Secretary of State at the request of the order-making authority. This follows the existing procedure in Section 15 of the 1984 Act. If the Secretary of State withholds consent, a period of three months must elapse before another order can be made by the authority. The amendments will help 10 ensure that rights of way for those on foot, on horseback and so on are not interrupted for lengthy periods without the express approval of the Secretary of State.

This is a short and uncontroversial Bill. Taken together, its provisions will be of practical benefit to all authorities involved in temporary traffic regulations. It offers scope for prompt and more effective measures, less encumbered by bureaucracy.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Brougham and Vaux.)

7.10 p.m.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Brougham and Vaux, for explaining the Bill with clarity and speed. I am interested that amendments will be made at a later stage in respect of bridleways, footpaths and cycle tracks. I hope that the noble Lord will be able to move his amendments en bloc, but perhaps the House will wish to reserve its right to discuss them at greater length, if necessary. It may well not be necessary when we see the amendments put down by the noble Lord before the Committee stage.

The major question that I wish to ask tonight which perhaps the Minister or the noble Lord, Lord Brougham and Vaux, could answer, is this. How far will these provisions be compatible with the Government's intended legislation on the Home report? En passant, the Minister will not be surprised to hear me impress on the Government once again the urgent necessity to bring the results of the Horne report into legislation before your Lordships' House at the earliest possible moment.

I know that the Minister cannot anticipate the Queen's speech but I hope that he will impress upon the people drawing up next year's legislative programme that we need legislation on the Horne report. It is there, ready in the Government's pigeonhole. Please let it flutter out and see the light of day. If it does not come next year, there is fear that it will be delayed until after the next general election. It is far too long since the Horne report produced its response, which was agreed by virtually all sides of your Lordships' House and the other place. I hope that we can have as clear an undertaking as Ministers are normally able to give on these matters.

The provision for the registration of alternative routes is useful in this short Bill. I support it and also the idea of the devolution of the power to the local authority. There is no doubt that local authorities have had powers taken away from them at an alarming rate recently, with Secretaries of State wishing to do everything by order from their office desk. It is a welcome change to see matters being devolved down to the local authorities, where the decision-making powers should be in this case.

The only other subject to which I wish to refer is speed limits on motorway contraflows. I was astonished when the noble Lord told me that the penalty provisions for drivers offending against the temporary speed limits where not the same as those on a normal speed restricted road. Bearing in mind that a high proportion of the serious and fatal accidents on motorways occur near the coned-off sections of roadworks, it is absolutely essential that this provision be brought into force. People must be persuaded, cajoled, threatened and made to stick to the speed limits, particularly in those areas. People do not recognise how dangerous it is to exceed the speed limits in the contraflow parts of motorway construction sectors. With these few remarks, I commend the Bill to your Lordships' House and thank the noble Lord for introducing it tonight.

7.14 p.m.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, after the introduction by the noble Lord, Lord Brougham and Vaux, and the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, there is little that I should like to say. The Bill, is useful and we are all grateful for its introduction by Mr. Brandon-Bravo in the other place. We are, however, concerned that it should not affect the Horne report in any way and should not be used as a stopgap.

I am a little disappointed that the very good suggestion put forward by my honourable friend in another place, Mr. Marshall—who is the chairman of the Select Committee on Transport—was not accepted. It was that contractors or others who cause roadworks should be given a time limit and should be penalised if they go beyond it. Perhaps a period should be given to them to complete a job.

As part of the contract, there should be a charge for inconvenience caused to other road users which should increase as time goes on if the contractor oversteps the scheduled time. My honourable friend in another place believed—and I think that there is something in this—that it is not outwith the philosophy of the Government that if people make a nuisance of themselves they should pay for it. Perhaps this would help. However, in Committee the other place decided that it was not ready to accept such a penalty clause and my honourable friend withdrew the amendment.

One other amendment went to a vote and again my honourable friend and other Members of another place lost it. The general feeling was that this is a useful Bill as long as it does not become too big. The noble Lord, Lord Brougham and Vaux, introduced the Bill with the intimation that there would be an amendment dealing with the time provision which would be of benefit. I accept that and with those reservations I wish the Bill God speed.

7.17 p.m.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, let me first take this opportunity to express the Government's wholehearted support for the Bill. We welcome it and it will usefully strengthen the powers of highway authorities to regulate traffic for short periods. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Brougham and Vaux for his detailed explanation of the provisions in the Bill. I may speak for a little longer than noble Lords opposite but I wish to give a general welcome to the Bill and to explain its history.

Local highway authorities have a long history of using orders and notices to restrict or prohibit traffic for temporary periods. They are best placed to determine when a temporary restriction is appropriate. Even so, we do well to remember that the purposes for which a temporary order or notice can be used are strictly limited as the law now stands.

A temporary traffic restriction can only be justified where a highway authority is "satisfied" that traffic should be so restricted or prohibited. The grounds on which it is to be satisfied are because of works or proposed works on or near the road or because of the likelihood of danger to the public or of serious damage to the road.

If the authority is so satisfied, its may temporarily restrict or prohibit the use of the road or part of it. But it cannot at any time use temporary restrictions to prohibit pedestrian access to premises. General duties under the Highways Act 1980 to protect rights of way and minimise obstruction must be observed at all times. Nor can vehicular access be retricted for more than eight hours in any 24-hour period unless the authority is satisfied that the order is necessary on one of several counts: namely, for avoiding or preventing danger to road users; for preventing damage to the road or in the near vicinity; for allowing vehicular traffic to pass on the road, or for preserving amenities of an area by prohibiting or restricting heavy commercial vehicles from using the road or roads in that area.

The Bill makes no fundamental change to any of those safeguards. Rather, as my noble friend has said, it seeks in a number of respects to enhance the powers and procedures when all those tests have been met. We must ensure that, where the powers are appropriate, they provide local highway authorities with an adequate and efficient means of managing the road network while emergency work, repairs to water mains and other remedial measures are in progress. The Government welcome the provisions set out in the Bill because we believe they will do just that.

I shall comment only briefly on a number of respects in which the Bill offers improvements. First, it introduces a new but strictly limited short-term notice for restrictions on account of road works. Parliament has approved this principle in a number of local Acts. There is merit in giving it general application. Secondly, the Bill will allow the notice procedure to provide for appropriate temporary restrictions on alternative roads. For example, parking places or a bus lane could be temporarily suspended on a diversionary route while emergency road works were in progress. As my noble friend has said, highway authorities will, with the Secretary of State's consent, also be able to introduce temporary restrictions on alternative routes where they are trunk roads rather than having to resort to the present duplication of procedure. The Bill will also clarify the powers to erect traffic signs in connection with temporary restrictions imposed by the notice procedure.

The Government particularly welcome and support the provision which will rectify the present anomaly in the law on speeding. Temporary speed limits can be essential to ensure safety in the vicinity of road works, especially where carriageway widths have been reduced. In strengthening the penalty for breach of a temporary speed restriction by making it subject to obligatory endorsement and discretionary disqualification, the Bill will bring it into line with speeding offences generally.

The Government are aware that the relaxation of time limits with regard to orders and notices has led to some concern that restrictions might be maintained for unduly long periods. That is one reason why I have reminded your Lordships of the general constraints surrounding the use of these powers. In general the Bill offers a welcome relaxation in the consent procedure which will help to remove unnecessary central involvement. We are satisfied that the proposed 18-month limit strikes the right balance.

But, as my noble friend has indicated, he will bring forward an amendment to the Bill in Committee to introduce a shorter duration of six months for temporary orders affecting non-motorised traffic on footpaths, bridleways, cycle tracks and byways open to all traffic. There are unlikely to be many such orders. But the Government are content to accept a shorter period for those, with power for the Secretary of State to approve an extension of time where necessary, as he has powers to do under the present arrangements.

The Bill does not seek to strengthen the law in respect of road works by utilities and the matter of subsequent re-instatement. I know that some of your Lordships would like to see more far-reaching changes in the management of utility street works. The Horne report made a convincing case for reform. The Government accept that the Public Utilities Street Works Act 1950 (PUSWA), which regulates the relations between highway authorities and utilities, is in need of replacement. The Bill before us is not an appropriate vehicle to make piecemeal changes to street works legislation. I hope the House and in particular the noble Lords, Lord Tordoff and Lord Carmichael, will accept my assurance that the Government regard the reform of PUSWA as a priority and intend to bring forward a substantive Bill at an early opportunity.

In summary, the Bill is a useful tidying up measure. Its main advantages lie in the greater flexibility and improved powers it offers highway authorities to manage traffic for temporary periods in the interests of minimising congestion and disruption to all road users. I commend the Bill to the House and hope it will be received favourably during the passage of its remaining stages.

Lord Brougham and Vaux

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for his comments which I think have more or less answered all the questions that were raised. I also wish to thank the noble Lords, Lord Tordoff and Lord Carmichael, for their support. I too should like to see the Horne report included in the measure, but the Long Title to the Bill is too restrictive to bring that in. Although I am not party to government business, I am hopeful that report will be discussed in the next Session along with another report which I have in mind. I thank noble Lords for their support. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn until 8 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.24 to 8 p.m.]