HL Deb 05 June 1995 vol 564 cc1173-5

The Marquess of Aberdeen and Temair asked Her Majesty's Government:

What proposals they have to improve the state of rural roads which are now in poor condition due to the lack of money available to county councils.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Viscount Goschen)

My Lords, the Government provide considerable support to counties in respect of their highways duties, but we believe that it must be for local authorities to decide their own local spending priorities within their budgets.

The Marquess of Aberdeen and Temair

My Lords, since putting down the Question I have had much support not only from my local council in Berkshire but from the British Road Federation Ltd., which sent me a five-page detail of the serious deterioration of roads, in particular rural and country roads. Is the Minister aware that unless funds become available very soon to local councils the serious deterioration will make roads quite unusable and the cost of keeping them up will be beyond the scope of government or local government?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the point is that funds are made available. Within those funds local authorities must determine their own priorities. In considering the Question it is important to note that the 1994 report of the National Road Maintenance Condition Survey indicated a steady overall improvement in the condition of rural roads since the mid-1980s.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, bearing in mind the reorganisation of local government which the Government have engendered over the past couple of years, will the Government give the House an indication of the extra funds being made available to the new smaller district authorities for maintaining roads to compensate for the reduction in economies of scale in the county councils?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, proper allocation of resources is made by central government by way of the revenue support grant, based on the standard spending assessment. That assessment is used to calculate the sum of money provided by central government in terms of the revenue support grant. Beyond that it really must be for local authorities to decide how to spend their money.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, does the Minister agree that in country areas where little public transport is available people are far more dependent on the use of their local roads than in city areas?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, yes, where public transport is not available, people are naturally more dependent on the use of their roads. I believe that the National Road Maintenance Condition Survey, to which I referred earlier, gives an indication of the quality of our local roads and, indeed, indicates that it has improved since the mid-1980s.

Lord Walpole

My Lords, while I agree with the Minister that some rural roads may not be too bad, does he not think that it would be a better use of resources in rural areas if county councils and the relevant authorities maintained their A and B roads to the present standard, developed a series of tertiary routes—a system that has gone out of fashion—and left the remainder for access only, to be maintained to a low standard? At present such a proposal is, I know, against the law because a county council which fails to maintain a road can be sued. But is it not more sensible to maintain a few roads to a higher standard and leave other roads for access only?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, it is important to note that central government are, of course, the relevant highway authority for trunk roads. Beyond that we already provide direct funding to local authorities in respect of structural maintenance of roads of more than local importance, and for bridge assessment and strengthening on all roads. Beyond that, for roads for which the local authority is the highway authority it must be a local decision in respect of the local circumstances.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, when local authorities state that there are inadequate funds for social, education, fire, environmental health, and maintenance of roads services, Government Ministers constantly fall back on the statement that it is a matter for local authorities to determine. Does not the Minister agree that if the total amount is inadequate—people want adequate fire and education services—the Government cannot hide behind their constant reiteration that local authorities can take the funds intended for some other purpose?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, there will always be calls for more public expenditure. Ministers are responsible for the level of money that is spent and local authorities have their role to play in constraining public expenditure.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, in the supplementary to his original Question the noble Marquess mentioned that he had received representations from Berkshire County Council. Is the noble Viscount aware that Berkshire County Council wastes millions of pounds in building unnecessary road schemes which simply attract traffic? If some of that money were diverted to improving rural roads it would be far better for the county.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, local authorities must be responsible for their own decisions. I believe that the noble Lord's question should be addressed to the local authority, not to the Government.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, in relation to the total capital value of our roads, most local authorities are able to put into road maintenance a sum which would not be considered anything like sufficient if it were compared with the relative amount that private home owners put into maintaining their homes? Does the Minister think that the way in which the money is allocated by government sufficiently reflects the weight of traffic on the road network of local authorities? That weight of traffic is the main cause of the destruction of road surfaces.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I am afraid that I do not accept the noble Baroness's comparison. Traffic levels are taken into account in deciding the level of money which is provided via the revenue support grant.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the AA and Transport 2000 do not share his expressions—which, with respect, are rather complacent—about the state of rural roads? Is he aware that the decline in accidents which has occurred on urban roads is far less for rural roads? A great deal of that has something to do with the failure to look after the roads and maintain them properly. Local authorities do not share the Minister's view that they have sufficient spending provision to be able to keep the roads properly signed and in good condition.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, local authorities are responsible for their own roads for which they are the local highway authority. We believe that adequate funding is available from central government. Beyond that, it must be for the local authorities to decide their own spending commitments. If the noble Lord feels that a particular local authority is not fulfilling its duty, then he must take it up with that local authority. We provide specific safety funding. Since 1992 the department has allocated £193 million to local authorities to spend on local safety schemes.

Earl Russell

My Lords, is the Minister aware that local authority capping limits are subject to judicial review?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I am sure that the House is grateful to the noble Earl for giving us that information.

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