HL Deb 04 November 1993 vol 549 cc1177-80

4.23 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (The Earl of Arran) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 18th October be approved.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, this order is long and complex but it is none the less largely non-contentious. The length of the order is a consequence of it consolidating as well as amending existing law relating to roads in Northern Ireland. The modification and clarification of roads law introduced in the order is necessary to take account of changing needs and circumstances, deficiencies identified through operational experience and the desirability of further harmony with highway law in England and Wales. The order should, as a result, better serve the operational needs of the Department of the Environment as road authority and hence the interests of road users.

Turning to the content of the order, I will confine my remarks to the most significant of the new and amended provisions. Part III introduces a procedure for authorising the private sector to provide and maintain special roads in exchange for the facility to charge tolls. This will correspond closely with the provisions of the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991. Although there are no toll roads operating in Northern Ireland and no current proposals for the introduction of such facilities, it is considered prudent to provide for the possible eventuality.

Part IV contains new and amended provisions relating to the improvement and safety of roads, which in particular, modify the Department of the Environment's power to provide street lighting to take account of street lighting in private streets becoming the responsibility of the developer; to clarify its road drainage responsibilities; and to give it improved powers to introduce traffic calming measures and to deal with sources of potential danger or nuisance to road users.

Part VIII replaces the anachronistic local provision, the Down County Council (Strangford Lough Ferry) Act 1967, under which the Department of the Environment has operated the Strangford ferry service since the reorganisation of local government in Northern Ireland in 1973. Article 122, which corresponds to Section 23 of the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991, gives the Department of the Environment for the first time a specific power to enter into agreements whereby works carried out by the department under the order will be paid for by a developer, either wholly or in part.

The order makes a number of other relatively minor or technical changes in roads law, chiefly reflecting operational experience. However, I have drawn attention to the main provisions of the legislation. I commend the order to your Lordships' House and I hope it will be welcomed as a convenient, comprehensive and clear statement of the law on public roads in Northern Ireland.'

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 18th October be approved.—(The Earl of Arran.)

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for the synopsis of the Bill which he gave us with his usual skill and speed, especially in view of the fact that this is rather a long order. I am also grateful to him for elucidating the new elements which the order introduces and for signalling them so clearly. We on these Benches are concerned by a number of aspects of this order which we believe reflects, in general terms, the Government's failure to adopt an integrated transport policy for Northern Ireland, and indeed for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which we have urged on them for a long time.

It is to be hoped that in this case the matter can he debated more fully in another place when it considers the order. The whole order is based on the necessity, announced right at the beginning of it, to facilitate road traffic. This seems to us to be a shaky basis for policy. The Government should, especially if they are serious about the Rio Summit, be seeking instead to reduce rather than accommodate traffic growth. We need to provide full environmental assessment of all transport options before opting for a road as opposed to a different option.

I hope that the noble Earl will give me a little assistance and elucidation on one part of the order. Perhaps he can throw light on Part V of the order which deals specifically with environmental assessment. Article 67(1) states that, where the Department has under consideration the construction of a new road … it shall determine before the date of publication of details of the project whether or not it falls within Annex I or Annex II to Council Directive No. 85/337/EEC". The article continues: Where it appears to the Department that it falls within Annex I, or that it falls within Annex II … that it should be made subject to an environmental assessment in accordance with the Directive, the Department shall prepare an environmental statement". Headings (a) and (b) of Article 67(2) contain reservations about the nature of the assessment. Why are these reservations especially necessary in this case? What will be the effect of the statement on the eventual assessment? Who precisely will make the environmental assessment? The department will make the statement, but who will make the assessment? Am I correct in assuming that, regardless of what any assessment may say, the department will still retain the power to proceed with the project whatever environmental dangers are signalled?

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Earl for his clear introduction to this order. As he said, it is a long order but he is right to describe it as non-contentious on the whole. I wish to ask the noble Earl three questions on Part III which deals on the whole with toll roads and the question of concessionaires and private firms running those roads. Is the noble Earl aware—I am sure the Government are aware—that toll roads in the United States have always had an attraction for racketeers as they generate large sums of cash? They involve an enormous cash flow. Is the Minister satisfied, in the context of Northern Ireland, that the cash that is necessary for the operation of a toll system does not present tempting opportunities to those in the terrorist organisations who are increasingly looking to racketeering as a source of finance now that other sources of finance, thank goodness, are increasingly closed to them?

My second point is why toll roads are presented as a means of raising money by concessionaires and do not appear to be considered, as I believe they should be, as a factor for pushing traffic from the roads to more efficient and environmentally benign forms of transport, including rail—which we debated so recently in your Lordships' House, in a rather more crowded Chamber than now.

Finally, I should like to ask the noble Earl what may seem a trivial question. It is mentioned in Article 35 that the police will be able to travel free on any private toll roads which are introduced, but there is no mention of the security forces. Are we to assume that the Army will have to stop and put money in the meter, or will they, too, have free travel on these roads?

Having made those three points, to which I should be grateful for a response, we on these Benches have no objections to the order.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I am well aware that the present situation in Northern Ireland is one of extreme tension and that nothing should be done which would in any way make easier the commission of acts of terrorism and political violence. However, perhaps I may refer to the question of cross-border roads, a large number of which have been permanently closed or obstructed. I should like to put down a marker that the subject should not be completely forgotten but should be re-examined in the medium or long term.

I hope that such a re-examination would not be done en bloc as a matter of all or nothing. It would be far better if re-examination could be conducted on a case-by-case basis, road by road, looking first at those roads where closure causes the longest detours. I say no more. I do not expect the noble Earl even to refer to the subject today. However, I should not like it to be lost sight of completely.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, before dwelling on the points raised by noble Lords I should like to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, to the Opposition Bench as spokesman on Northern Ireland affairs. It may be appropriate if I pay tribute at the same time to the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, although he is not in his seat at the moment. The noble Lord has spoken on Northern Ireland matters for the past eight years, during which time your Lordships will agree he has asked many searching, penetrating and discerning questions, always in a most courteous manner. I am sure that your Lordships will wish to be associated with that tribute, particularly former Ministers from my own Benches who were always aware of the noble Lord's affection and respect for the people and affairs of Northern Ireland.

I said at the beginning that the order is long and complex. Several noble Lords have asked some fairly searching questions. The order was subject to extensive consultation with the interested parties prior to its consideration in your Lordships' House. It is evident that it has broad support.

Perhaps I may take some of the points, not necessarily in the order in which they were raised. I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, as regards Article 35, that I understand that the Army would be exempt from the payment of tolls.

In response to the question concerning environmental assessment put by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, the environmental statement is made by the department. The department is also charged with the task of carrying out the assessment. The final decision is a matter for the Minister for the Environment in the light of the information gathered.

I take the point of the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, about cash flows and the potential for racketeering by terrorists. That is a serious point, and he is quite right to raise it. Of course his views will be taken very strongly into account.

I take very seriously also the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. He is quite right. This is a very sensitive and difficult time in Northern Ireland. That is why my right honourable friend the Prime Minister at this very moment is seeking to talk to the political leaders in Northern Ireland in an endeavour to get talks going again. I also take the point that the noble Lord made concerning cross-border roads.

I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.