HL Deb 28 February 1992 vol 536 cc553-62

3.30 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This Private Member's measure has come from another place under the careful nurturing of my honourable friend Mr. Mans, who achieved all-party support there. Its purpose is to reduce road casualties in built-up areas, especially in the residential streets of our towns and villages, and to improve the road environment near where people live.

The Bill proposes to achieve that by enabling the Department of Transport and the Scottish Office to lay regulations to provide a framework of acceptable traffic calming measures. It rather surprised me that after today's Motion was put on the Order Paper, several noble Lords asked me what traffic calming measures were. They are defined in Clause 1(3) as: works affecting the movement of vehicular and other traffic for the purpose of promoting safety or preserving or improving the environment through which the highway runs". Clause 2(2) (c) gives the same definition as it applies to Scotland.

That is fine so far as it goes, but I have to explain that the works in question are not road humps or "sleeping policemen", as they are popularly known. These are the only traffic calming measure for which there is currently legislative provision. Although they have their use in slowing down traffic in urban areas, I do not believe that they are successful on bus routes or roads in regular use by the police, fire or ambulance brigades. Indeed, they are widely resented by these groups of professional drivers who find that not only do they cause deterioration to their vehicles, but they cause suffering to their passengers and crew. I refer, of course, to the original type of humps. I am delighted to see that recent regulations on improved design have been achieved by the Department of Transport.

Private motorists, too, have in the past suffered knocked oil sumps and fractured silencers. The emergency services, the RAC and the AA are all supporters of the Bill, as are the highway authorities, Transport 2000 and Friends of the Earth, to whom I owe special thanks for their work on the Bill. That amounts to a pretty powerful combination.

The kind of measures that I see as being covered by the Bill are rough road surfaces, chicanes, gutters, increased kerb heights, with the attendant occasional ramp for disabled people, pavement widening and bollards. They could be used in addition to the measures in the Department of Transport's recent and successful urban safety demonstration project, about which we shall doubtless hear something from my noble friend Lord Astor.

It is a blight on urban motorists that such measures are required. But when I say that in 1990 there were 2,400 fatal accidents on our built-up roads out of a total casualty rate of 234,500, the need is readily apparent. When I add that the number of casualties is 70 per cent. of the total and that they occurred when the speed limit was 40 miles per hour or less, it is clear that, in the words of Edward VIII as Prince of Wales, "Something must be done". The tragic loss of life and damage to people's bodies reflected in those figures, to say nothing of the burden placed upon the police, the ambulance service, doctors and hospitals, mean that anything that can be done to reduce them should be done and done quickly.

The Department of Transport has calculated that a vehicle travelling at 40 miles per hour is bound to kill a child, but at 30 miles per hour half the children struck would be killed, and at 20 miles per hour one in 20 would be killed. The "anything" I referred to a few moments ago is clearly reducing urban motoring speeds. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the Government wanted to introduce similar measures themselves but, as happens far too often in our crowded parliamentary sessions, were unable to secure a suitable legislative vehicle. The Bill provides them with an opportunity to give a boost to their stated objective of reducing road casualties by a third by the year 2000. I hope that they will seize it with open arms because it has been proved that the measures I have outlined work.

Some 25 years ago I lived and worked for a year in Holland where traffic calming was beginning to be introduced. More recently, in the past 10 years, West Germany has invested heavily in such measures and there has been a drop in pedestrian fatalities from 6.2 to 2.3 per 100,000 of the population, a reduction of fractionally under two thirds. That is a very impressive figure. However, I am afraid to say that that compares with a fall in the United Kingdom of only half that number. I am also afraid that it is a horrific fact that in 1980 there were fewer such deaths in the United Kingdom than in West Germany, but in 1990 there were more, in spite of the Government's success in reducing road accidents in other areas, notably through the drink/drive campaigns highlighted so well by my former colleague Mr. Bottomley.

Horrific as the situation undoubtedly is, I do not bring the Bill before the House only to reduce road accidents. Traffic-calming schemes on the Continent have included very attractive planting schemes, especially of trees. In spite of my green credentials I do not have an interest to declare in this respect. I have never sold a tree to anyone, but I recognise their value in prettifying the urban environment. Shrubs, however, are a different matter. Planting them in large groups often results in a road hazard as children and even elderly people can emerge from behind them very suddenly, resulting in emergency braking, skidding and injury. Trees, however, with the sight-obscuring lower branches removed, can and do, if planted in strategic places, cause traffic to slow down.

It is noticeable that trees do not grow well in tarmac or, rather, in small areas of soil surrounded by tarmac. They do far better in planting holes surrounded by bricks or stone sets so that the rain can penetrate over a wider area. Bricks or stone sets are themselves traffic-calming measures, so those comments are not merely gratuitous horticultural advice to local highway authorities.

Having said that, a recent Kew study, which I received only this week, has shown conclusively that shrubs improve the environment by making it quieter and reducing airborne pollution by fixing carbon as they grow, thus offsetting the carbon released by the burning of fossil fuels of which petrol is a major example. Therefore, banks of shrubs parallel but not at right-angles to the pavement are most desirable, but not as traffic-calming measures.

Finally, I refer briefly to the two schedules—Schedule 1 relating to England and Wales and Schedule 2 relating to Scotland. They are the nuts and bolts of the Bill and specify that traffic-calming works are to be the subject of prescribed regulations or to be specially authorised by the relevant Secretary of State. They also make clear that the schemes are to be treated not as an obstruction but as an integral part of the highway and are to be maintained as such. They also put beyond doubt that any powers which the authority already has to erect or remove such works shall not be prejudiced by the fact that they are not covered by the regulations as virtually all the regulations made under the Highways Act 1980, which the Bill amends, are subject to annulment by either House of Parliament.

In summary, this is a useful Bill, a Bill wanted by everyone involved. I hope that it will receive the blessing of the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be read a second time.—[Lord Skelmersdale.]

3.40 p.m.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale for introducing and explaining the purpose of the Bill. While I do not deny that the Bill plugs a rather large loophole in the 1980 Act, it gives rise to some concern.

The specific anxiety that I wish to underline today —I hope that the Minister is able to give me some assurance—is that in the schedules the relevant Secretaries of State have some impressive powers; they can make regulations. Nowhere in the Bill does it suggest that those Secretaries of State shall consult with any other bodies. One has to recognise that the highway authorities, to which the responsibility will be devolved, do not have any consultative obligations. I hope therefore that the Minister will reassure me on that point.

I do not disagree with my noble friend's resumé of the accident rates, and so on. However, I question some of his remarks on those measures which he envisages as traffic calming measures, in particular those relating to trees, shrubs and so on. I do not pretend this afternoon to be able to give a complete list of measures that might be taken. Let us hope that this simple and straightforward Bill gives a spurt of energy to that new breed of people called road traffic engineers or road traffic managers. It seems to me that for too long local authorities and highway authorities have used the road hump, the sleeping policeman, in its various forms as the only method available to them for traffic calming. There are innumerable other measures. If a little more investment and effort went into the design of traffic management schemes, much of the damage which my noble friend seeks to prevent by introducing the Bill would be set aside.

I should declare an interest to your Lordships. I am a member of the Public Policy Committee of the Royal Automobile Club. The RAC states in its excellent brief: Good traffic calming relies on a creative combination of these measures. In countries where traffic calming is well established (largely in northern Europe) reliance on humps is minimal … There is a need for standards and regulations to be wider in scope applying to a wider range of measures so that local authorities are aware of what is permitted". It suggests, and I concur, that we need higher quality and higher standards.

Perhaps one may be anecdotal. Noble Lords will see that I have been somewhat injured, right outside the Palace of Westminster in Abingdon Street. It appears to me that the new traffic lights in Parliament Square, which culminate in a pedestrian crossing at the beginning of Millbank, have now become a trial site road testing area. Cars leap off that traffic light in a surge in the need to reach Vauxhall Bridge Road faster than anyone else has ever done it. Previously it was a long trail of traffic; now we have a trial. Perhaps those who are responsible might allow some of your Lordships who have been knocked down in that road a greater sense of security.

One hopes that, in the traffic management schemes which the Bill will help to promote, the highway authorities will use all the tools at their disposal rather than imposing blanket restrictions on the use of a motor car, as some authorities are inclined to do. The motor car and motor vehicles generally are an essential part of our economy. They should be fostered but they should also be directed. If the Bill does any reasonable good to the further direction of the use of motor vehicles, I welcome it.

3.45 p.m.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, we on these Benches welcome the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, described its contents most ably. I agree that its title is quaint and it is also attractive. I doubt whether in Holland or Germany the Bill would be described as such. Its title pays tribute to the flexibility and charm of the English language. Traffic calming can mean many things. Taken together with the Aggravated Vehicle-Taking Bill, a rather strange picture may be painted for those who are not familiar with the chaos on our streets.

The Bill's aims are clear and they are most welcome. I lived for a while in London in what is commonly known as a "rat run". It was a quiet street in a residential area which was used at certain times of the day to join two major roads. During that period the road became extremely dangerous and there were many accidents. However, the local authority was loath to introduce any of the measures which are included in the Bill—for example, the humps—because of the potential problems that it might face in the event of accidents, claims for damages and so forth. The Bill goes most of the way towards dealing with such problems.

However, I doubt whether the Bill will do much to calm drivers. They will be extremely irritated wherever they go by any measure which decreases their speed. The selfishness, intolerance and rudeness of drivers in London has become marked in recent times. On the other hand, I have no doubt that there will be a certain amount of calming for parents of small children, owners of animals and old people who live near roads which produce an enormous amount of traffic noise. There is no doubt that, in reducing the speed of traffic vehicles, one reduces the noise. However, in slowing down the type of traffic that one gets in South London one may reduce the engine noise but not the length of time when one must listen to loud music coming from a car which in the summer has its windows and roof open. The music is played at a level of decibels which will cause damage to anyone who has to listen to it for long. I hope that the problem will be dealt with in the near future by other legislation.

The Bill will be of great benefit to people in built-up areas and it can only lead to further sensible measures in relation to the environment. By introducing measures to reduce the amount of traffic—for example, by using trees —one creates variety in the streets. Sometimes streets are narrowed to create what are called traffic throttles. Bollards are put in place in order to slow down the traffic which must pass between. If done imaginatively, all such measures will enhance the appearance of our streets, in addition to improving safety and reducing noise.

Although the Bill goes some way towards dealing with the increasing problem of motor cars, I suggest that if noble Lords want to be calm in traffic they should think of riding a motor cycle. I rode a motor cycle this morning, not having heard the tragic news about the bomb that had exploded in London. I was able on my motor cycle to pass rather smugly through some of the worst traffic I have seen in London for a long time. Together with the noble Lord, Lord Strathcarron, I have formed a parliamentary all-party motor cycle group. We have various aims that we wish to tackle, including legislation from Brussels, but we shall also be attempting to persuade people, including noble Lords, to consider moving to two wheels, whether that be a motor cycle or a pedal cycle. We shall seek to persuade people that that is a good alternative to using a car. It is an environmentally attractive alternative and statistics prove that one is less likely to have an accident while on two wheels. Next to walking I believe it is the best way in which one can serve one's fellow human beings in terms of being less of a danger on the road and of being more environmentally progressive, as it were.

We welcome the legislation and I look forward to hearing the noble Viscount's comments when he replies.

3.51 p.m.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, like other noble Lords I, too, wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, for introducing this Bill in your Lordships' House. I congratulate his honourable friend, Mr. Mans, for the way he introduced the Bill in another place. No one should have any doubts about the validity of the Bill after listening to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale. However, anyone who has any doubts should read the comprehensive speech given by Mr. Mans on Second Reading of the Bill in another place. That speech fully outlines and explains the purposes of the Bill.

This is a Private Member's Bill but I am in the fortunate position of being able to say that the Opposition give it their full support. The Opposition spokesman supported the Bill at Second Reading in another place. The purpose of the Bill primarily is to clarify any doubts local authorities may have about traffic calming measures. People may query the term "traffic calming", but it is that process that the Bill seeks to achieve. The title of the Bill does not matter. What matters is what Parliament does with the Bill and what local authorities do with the Bill.

The purpose of the Bill is to tidy up the legality of highway authorities undertaking traffic calming measures. The Bill determines what measures highway authorities may take. There is doubt about what they can and cannot do. The Bill will help them ascertain what they can and cannot do. The Bill enables local highway authorities to take account of the interests of residents and of through traffic that may pass through the residents' areas.

Mr. Mans referred to the matter of pedestrians. I shall not weary the House by giving figures of pedestrian fatalities. However, any noble Lord who is interested may find it worthwhile reading the Second Reading debate on this Bill which took place on 24th January in another place. At col. 613 of Commons Hansard Mr. Mans said that we in Britain pride ourselves on the measures we have introduced to reduce traffic accidents. Those measures have certainly reduced traffic accidents, but as regards traffic accidents involving pedestrians our record is far from being the best in the European Community. However, I repeat that I shall not weary the House with those figures today.

As the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, said, the Bill has received widespread support from a variety of organisations. I believe I am correct in saying that it has the full support of the Government. It should pass through your Lordships' House without difficulty. Highway authorities are uncertain as to whether traffic calming measures could make them liable for prosecution for obstructing the highway. The Bill will help to clarify that point. Mr. Mans has emphasised that he wants a minimum amount of regulations but a maximum amount of discretion given to local authorities. I believe that that view is shared by the Association of Metropolitan Authorities of which I am president. It is also the view of the Association of London Authorities.

The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, mentioned regulations. I hope that we shall pay great attention to the regulations when they are issued. I doubt whether there will be many amendments to consider in Committee because we wish the Bill to reach the statute book without difficulty. Therefore, we may not be in a position to deal with amendments to regulations. Much responsibility will be placed on the two Secretaries of State and the Department of Transport in framing those regulations. I agree with Mr. Mans that we do not want too much regulation.

We want proper regulation with the maximum flexibility so that highway authorities can get on with their work.

I was pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, stressed what can be done as regards the appearance of streets. As one drives around, one can see where attention has been paid to the appearance of the street. I do not just mean greenery because trees can be dangerous as well as useful. Therefore, attention must be paid to that aspect. However, one can see roads—and there are some in my area —with grass verges which have become disgraceful to look at because cars have parked on them. There is such a verge not far from me with a sign stating that it is illegal to park on the grass. However, nobody seems to take much notice. That is an important point.

The best traffic calming can be carried out by the individual. I echo what some noble Lords have said about the disgraceful, selfish and arrogant driving that one finds. I believe that 95 per cent. of drivers drive decently and properly. However, the other 5 per cent. cut in and generally drive badly. We debated the matter on the Road Traffic Act. That applies also to courier motorcyclists who are an absolute menace in London. I appreciate the care which most motorcyclists exercise but that does not apply to courier motorcyclists. Anyone who drives in the City of London will realise the truth of what I am saying.

All noble Lords could detail points which they believe should be considered by highway authorities in carrying out the provisions to be made under the Bill. There are two points about which I am particularly worried. I am surprised that one or two Members, although not of this House, seem to justify rat runs on the basis that they make the flow of traffic easier. I have been pleased to note in the past couple of weeks that in part of the borough of Waltham Forest, where rat runs have been a nuisance for years, there has been constructed a two-foot stretch of pavement with proper kerbing which has stopped rat running along three roads. It prevents traffic impeding other traffic going from left to right and from right to left. It will be better for the residents living in those roads which have been used as rat runs. Local authorities will wish to tackle that problem.

The other matter about which I am particularly concerned will not be covered by this legislation. That is the problem of drivers jumping red lights. Unfortunately, I find it necessary to travel more often by car these days in the city. Every day I see people jumping red lights and jumping across the yellow criss-crosses. Those are two menaces which must be dealt with. However, I am not certain that they can be dealt with by the provisions of this Bill.

We could all detail points which we should like to see tackled by highway authorities. I hope that your Lordships will give full support to the Bill and that the Government will confirm their support for it. I hope that the regulations will be sufficiently flexible so that they do not inhibit local highway authorities doing what they believe is best for their area.

4 p.m.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the Government attach considerable importance to the use of traffic-calming techniques. They can be invaluable in enhancing both the safety and appearance of a locality. They form an integral part of most area-wide local safety schemes, which can particularly benefit the most vulnerable road users.

The public perception is increasingly that traffic calming offers an economic means of encouraging people to drive at a speed and in a manner appropriate to the roads they are using. The precise measures to be used in any situation have to be decided at local level. That is a matter for the individual highway authorities, in consultation with the police and others with an interest. The major contribution which we can make is to ensure that they have the appropriate tools for the task. It has become apparent that some of the techniques which have been used successfully in other countries are in doubt under current UK law. This Private Member's Bill is therefore welcome, and the Government have been assisting with it.

The legislation is intended to clarify the legal status of traffic calming measures. It would give highway authorities the confidence to use a wider range of appropriate techniques than hitherto. That is important in tailoring permanent safety or environmental schemes to meet the anxieties of local people, and in ensuring cost-effectiveness. It would permit the temporary use of traffic-calming features, which would help in fine-tuning measures in a particular location, or in restraining traffic speeds in the vicinity of road works. It would also allow authorities scope for innovation and experimentation.

The Government have a continuing involvement in developing new traffic engineering approaches. Development and demonstration work is under way, aimed at providing highway authorities with technical guidance. A number of recent and current projects place extensive reliance on the use of traffic-calming measures. The Government's Urban Safety Project demonstrated the value of an area-wide approach to traffic engineering measures aimed at accident reduction. Subsequently work was undertaken with the Institution of Highways and Transportation to give local authorities advice on improving urban safety management, involving traffic calming. Guidelines were issued last year.

The Bill contains provisions for the Secretary of State to make regulations prescribing traffic-calming works for the purposes of the legislation. This is preferable to trying to define each and every traffic measure in primary legislation; it will ensure that measures available are safe in the sense that their parameters have been tried and tested before inclusion in regulations; and it allows future techniques to be included, without the need for primary legislation. Some doubts have been expressed about the degree of detailed control which might be exerted through regulations, and over the extent of consultation. I am able to give some assurances which I hope will allay anxiety on those points.

The Government's aim would be to exercise a light hand in making any regulations. It is not envisaged that regulations would be as detailed as those for road humps. It is thought important to leave as wide a flexibility as possible for local authorities on the design of particular features. In many instances, regulations may need to do little more than list the measures concerned. The intention would be to consult widely with interested organisations in framing any regulations. That would include the local authority associations, as well as professional bodies and organisations representing road users.

The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, raised the question of noise. We believe that a wider range of traffic-calming measures will allow the flexibility to use features which avoid generating unnecessary noise. For instance, in some locations road humps can create noise from the slowing down and speeding up of vehicles and from bodywork and suspension of heavy vehicles passing over them. Access to a wider number of measures will enable local authorities to avoid or mitigate noise nuisances.

The noble Viscount spoke also of motor cycles. I am glad to hear that he does not drive his motor cycle in the same way as some couriers. There will be significant benefits for cyclists as well as for pedestrians and local residents. However, I understand that the recent painful experience of my noble friend Lord Lucas was in fact caused by a cyclist. It is therefore particularly apt that he speaks on the Bill today.

As I have said, the Government are supporting the Bill. The legislation will help in encouraging the development of new and wider traffic engineering approaches. These can have a significant effect on road safety and the street environment. I wish the Bill success. I thank my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale for sponsoring it and I commend it to your Lordships.

4.5 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am most grateful to noble Lords in all parts of the House who have supported this Bill today. I particularly welcome the moral support of my noble friend Lord Lucas, with his very long experience in this particular area. I believe that he asked the Government the key question of the day, namely: how, if we put this measure on the statute book, will the Government operate the new power? All the motoring organisations will be grateful for the response of my noble friend Lord Astor in that the highway authorities and other interested parties should be consulted and that relevant Secretaries of State should only specify sensible traffic-calming measures which are pertinent to the area in question with—he did not quite say "a light touch", but he used an expression of that kind for which we are all grateful.

I was concerned with some of the matters about which the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, spoke. He almost talked about an urban driver frustration Bill which I regard as being rather unfair. I remind the noble Viscount that in paragraph 49 of the Highway Code it is stated: You must obey the speed limits for the road and for your vehicle. Remember that except on motorways there is a 30 miles per hour speed limit on all roads where there are street lights unless signs show otherwise. Bear in mind that any speed limit is a maximum. It does not mean that it is safe to drive at that speed—always take into account all the conditions at the time". "All the conditions", after these regulations are produced, will include the traffic-calming measures that we have been discussing this afternoon. I was also very grateful for the blessing—almost the beatitude —of the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, and especially for his views on the road environment. The noble Lord spoke of a former rat run in the borough of Waltham Forest and its cure by a traffic-calming measure, possibly of doubtful legality.

That is the point. This Bill will remove legal uncertainty which exists over authorities' powers to use traffic-calming measures. As my noble friend Lord Astor said—and to whom I am also grateful—these measures have been tried both in this country and in Europe, and they work.

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