HL Deb 11 July 1994 vol 556 cc1512-4

2.53 p.m.

Lord Jay asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress has been made in fulfilment of the Prime Minister's pledge of 22nd July 1991, as part of the Citizen's Charter, to end the coning off of miles of motorway.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State., Department of Transport (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish)

My Lords, the new Highways Agency has as one of its aims in the Road User's Charter to minimise roadwork construction by restricting the length of coning allowed and the minimum distance between sites. It has set itself a target to keep 93 per cent. of lane miles available on each motorway route and 95 per cent. of the total motorway network available at all times.

Lord Jay

My Lords, although there may be a target,, has the Minister noticed that if one judges by the naked eye rather than ministerial pronouncements, there seem to be just as many of those cones or bollards about as; there were when the Prime Minister made his statement? Has he also observed that, in the past month, in defiance of all the Prime Minister's best efforts, a new outbreak of those objects has occurred even on Westminster Bridge and in Parliament Square?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, the ministerial eye and the statistics accord in this regard. In that regard, as the noble Lord, Lord Jay, has indicated, the Highways Agency is still a little short of reaching its 95 per cent. target. Indeed, as I speak, 93 per cent of the total number of kilometres or—dare I say this in case I annoy any one of your Lordships' House? —miles are available. So we are a little short of the target; but we are working towards it. One of the problems of having motorways which are used extensively and upon which people want to see improvements is that there is no way round doing work on motorways. The important point is to minimise the delays and to ensure that the coning is done sensibly.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, I keep passing notices among the cones which says, "Cones Hotline" and gives a telephone number. Upon what occasion am I supposed to ring that telephone number?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I would advise the noble Lady not to telephone every time she passes a cone; her phone bill might be rather expensive. The notice is there so that if the travelling public sees things that give them cause for complaint, or want to know more about what is happening, they can telephone the cones hotline. There have been about 6,000 calls, and many of those are pursued via the Department of Transport's regional offices, then via the agent or contractor, to ensure that if there is some problem with the cones that problem can be put right to allow the traffic to flow as smoothly as possible.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, has the Minister noticed the message which is written in large letters which says, 'To help motorists we have closed one lane"? I wonder whether my noble friend can stop two lanes being closed to help motorists even further. That notice is on the main route to London airport where it is essential that every conceivable part of every lane is open.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I am probably more aware than many in your Lordships' House of the cones on the route to London airport. I am not sure where that helpful message appears, but it may be because one of the systems that the Department of Transport and the Highways Agency have devised to help is that instead of closing two lanes of a three-lane motorway and hard shoulder the lanes are narrowed so that the motorways can be kept as two or three-lane motorways with narrower lanes. That may be what the notice alludes to.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, is not the message to which my noble friend drew attention to help oncoming traffic, the whole of whose half of the motorway is blocked?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, it rather depends upon the circumstances. As my noble and learned friend points out, the traffic coming the other way often has to come on to one's part of the motorway so that work may be done on the opposite carriageway. I believe that the whole House will appreciate that while coning on motorways, or any other road, is annoying, especially if one is held up in the traffic, it is necessary to keep the motorways up to date and their surfaces in good order.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the lane rental programme is applied by the Department of Transport in all cases?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, yes, I can. The charter mentioned in the original Question and Answer sets out where we should get to by now in the lane rental programme. It suggested that we should aim at about two-thirds of road projects being by lane rental. I am happy to say that, bar a very few, almost every contract is now on a lane rental basis. That has improved the situation greatly because it means that if a contractor completes the job faster—as many now do—he receives a bonus, and if he exceeds the date specified, then he has to pay lane rental. That appears to have concentrated minds, as it was intended to do.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the cones have some advantages, particularly for some of my grandchildren? I persuade them to count the cones, and the numbers are reaching astronomical proportions at the present time. Are not the number and frequency of the cones in direct proportion to the serious state of the erosion of our motorways over the years? Is not there a strong case now for carrying out an inquiry into how those motorways were constructed in order to avoid problems arising with new construction in the future?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I am delighted to hear that the cones have at least the value of helping the noble Lord's grandchildren with their arithmetic. However, one of my noble friends beside me has suggested that they will fall asleep—as is perhaps the intention—long before they reach the end of the line of cones. Approximately £650 million per year is spent on the maintenance of roads and bridges in our system. Many motorways must cope with traffic densities far in excess of those for which they were planned, which means that the original design criteria have become less than adequate. Considerable modernisation work has had to be done in certain areas not only to strengthen the beds of the motorways but to resurface them.

Lord Geddes

My Lords, can my noble friend encourage the powers that be at least to explain why a motorway must be coned off? It is wonderful what human nature can put up with when there is an explanation.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I appreciate my noble friend's point. In most cases, the work that is being carried out is obvious. However, I agree that we should endeavour to erect a brief explanation of the work that is proceeding. That is especially important to motorists when passing roadworks where at the time no work appears to be taking place.

Lord Bruce of Donington

Does the Minister agree that the nature of his replies indicates that in this field, as in so many others in which the Government have powers, it is wise to be economical with the use of pledges?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, no, I do not believe that for one moment. As I explained, the pledge on lane rentals has been delivered more than abundantly because almost all programmes are carried out by the lane rental procedure. I do not believe that we have been economical with anything; we are trying to ensure that the public knows why roadworks are being carried out.