HL Deb 20 March 1997 vol 579 cc1146-54

7.14 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Baroness Hamwee.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Lord Burnham) in the Chair.]

Clause 2 [Duty of principal councils to snake reports]:

Lord Lucas of Chilworth moved Amendment No. 1: Page 1, line 14, after ("prepare") insert ("following consultation with neighbouring principal councils and the Highways Agency").

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 1, I shall, with the leave of the Committee, speak also to Amendments Nos. 2, 3 and 4 in my name. These amendments have a common purpose, that of requiring certain controls to be placed on the face of the Bill. It may be that the Committee would prefer it if I make one perhaps longer speech rather than four separate speeches which might, at the end of the day, turn out to be longer.

When we were discussing this matter at Second Reading, the principle of traffic reduction had widespread support in your Lordships' House. The matter before us tonight, however, is whether the Bill, as it now stands, is good legislation and in the best interests of the environment and the economy. The amendments that I have set down will, I believe, improve the Bill by creating clear duties on local authorities to carry out consultation with neighbouring authorities, the Highways Agency and representatives of local business. The amendments will also ensure that any traffic reduction plan is directly related to other land use plans and that, once decisions are made, they are communicated to those who may be affected.

The key issue in this short debate is the obvious tension between what is acceptable as a matter for government guidance and what needs to be included in primary legislation. I believe it is recognised that all the obligations in the Bill could already be covered if Government issued the relevant guidance through the local authorities' transportation policy and plans (TPP) system.

That begs the question: why do we need primary legislation if guidance is sufficient? The answer, according to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, when we discussed this last is because, One … needs to legislate to bring those who are dragging their heels up to the mark of the best".

Placing these amendments on the face of the Bill will avoid confusion and ensure that all the local authorities that concern the noble Baroness have a duty to perform to a consistent level. As the Bill now stands, a local authority can drag its feet over matters of consultation and it will be the road users, businesses and residents who will face the inevitable disruption. Indeed, under Clause 5 of the Bill as it now stands those authorities may in fact do nothing whatsoever.

The amendment creates a duty on local highway authorities to consult with neighbouring authorities and the Highways Agency before preparing their reports to set local traffic reduction targets or curtailment of growth targets. That will ensure that any plans that might be developed take full account of circumstances on all parts of the road network. Decisions that affect traffic in one administrative area may well have implications for traffic conditions, business and economic development or indeed road safety in another administrative area.

At Second Reading, my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith gave the example of the City of London's ring of steel, saying that, while it may have improved conditions for those working in the area, it raised concerns among neighbouring boroughs that their networks were having to cope with the additional diverted traffic.

The other amendments provide for similar duties in other subject areas.

If the Bill is to produce a coherent approach to managing traffic, I suggest that each local plan must be in accord with those being developed around it. The reality for far too many road users is that local authorities have difficulty in ensuring that their road works are adequately co-ordinated. The prospect that area-wide traffic reduction plans could be introduced with little or no consultation is, I suggest to the Committee, far too great a risk to take.

I do not believe that this is a controversial point. I am informed by Friends of the Earth, who have been advising the noble Baroness, that they share this concern and do not disagree with its sentiments or purpose.

The Bill in its various forms has been in existence for around three years. Since the introduction of this Bill, Parliament has spent only a very few hours scrutinising it. While in current circumstances that may not be unusual, I do not believe that it is in the best interests of sound legislation.

I should like to say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee—with some diffidence but as courteously as I might—that both she and indeed her honourable friend in another place have played in some doubtful company when they rest on the advice of the Friends of the Earth. Friends of the Earth behaved extraordinarily badly. They wrote to one of my advisers and, with the permission of the Committee, I should like to read what the letter said: I would urge you in the strongest possible terms to use whatever influence you have to persuade Lord Lucas to withdraw his amendments. There are quite clearly enormous constitutional issues raised should a Peer frustrate the will of the House of Commons (and the House of Lords) by blocking such an important Bill on the eve of a General Election".

That is a comment which is neither correct in fact, nor complimentary to the manner in which your Lordships undertake their scrutiny role, which is at the heart of our work. However, that is what the letter said. I and others—the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders and the Freight Transport Association—contrary to what the Friends of the Earth say, remain concerned that, unamended, this legislation may not function well in practice. These amendments would ensure that the Bill could help to deliver the environmental and economic improvements we all seek. I beg to move.

Lord Clinton-Davis

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for the way in which he dealt with this matter. In my view the amendment is uncontentious, calling as it does for consultation by councils in drawing up plans of neighbouring councils, the Highways Agency, local businesses and so forth. I find nothing wrong with the spirit of the amendment.

I can give the noble Lord a clear undertaking that, in the event of the Labour Party coming to office after the election, we shall be happy to enter into consultations with him about his proposals. I cannot go further than that at this stage. It is necessary for a clear and new look to be taken, but I can give him that clear undertaking.

We say that the Bill is wholly consistent with Labour Party policy. We set it out last year in Consensus for Change. We call for an integrated, balanced, transport strategy and set out our commitment to work with local communities and businesses to find effective, equitable and environmentally sustainable solutions to congestion, pollution and traffic growth. As my noble friend Lord Graham said at Second Reading, we have made it clear that we support the principles of the Bill's aims within existing budgets; namely, to set local targets for traffic reduction or constraint on traffic growth; to consult local people, businesses and environmental and other organisations; to encourage cycling, walking, better public transport provision and speed reduction; and to take account of local plans in government assessment and local transport grant bids.

We believe that the Secretary of State for Transport should be involved in monitoring plans, furthering regional co-ordination and reporting to Parliament. The Bill in its present form advocates consultation with businesses and environmental organisations on drawing up local plans. It is therefore clear beyond peradventure that the Labour Party is supportive of the principle of consultation with regional and local bodies affected by the Bill. We are therefore supportive of the amendments proposed by the noble Lord. I want to make that absolutely plain so that there is no room for any doubt on that point. The detail of the matter is something about which we shall want to consult with the noble Lord and others concerned in the event of our being able to take office following the general election.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

I support in principle the amendment moved by my noble friend and in particular Amendment No. 1. Those are precisely the points I raised at Second Reading; that is to say, consultation with neighbouring principal councils and the Highways Agency. In his reply at Second Reading my noble friend the Minister gave me a satisfactory answer in relation to principal councils consultation and has since written to me and given me a satisfactory reply also on the point relating to the Highways Agency. When he replies to this debate I should like him to place that on record, in Hansard.

I am encouraged to hear what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, though that is probably not binding and, any way, is unlikely to happen. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, was also sympathetic to my concerns in relation to the consultation with those two specific bodies. Provided that I receive the reply I hope for, I shall be satisfied. I would not therefore support the amendment if it came to a Division.

My noble friend Lord Lucas showed me the letter sent by the Friends of the Earth. I was somewhat horrified that my noble friend was accused of acting unconstitutionally by tabling the amendments. I have heard it suggested in the past—and in this we have all co-operated—that by not pressing an amendment at Committee stage a Bill does not have to go back to the other place and can therefore go through. But to suggest that one should not even table an amendment because it might spoil the progress of a Bill is taking matters a bit far. If one was in another place—I have never been in the other place though some noble Lords have—the author of that letter might well be summoned to the Bar of the House of Commons to account for his actions. I hope that my noble friend the Leader of the House will take note of what is being said and look into the letter.

Having said that, I support the principle of the amendment and hope to receive a satisfactory reply from my noble friend on the point.

Lord Chorley

I too spoke at Second Reading. I do not want to say any more than was said by the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon. The amendments are not particularly pernicious though I would have thought guidance was sufficient in these circumstances.

The Earl of Courtown

Perhaps I can begin by making it clear that I fully understand the concerns that lie behind my noble friend's amendment. The Government agree that local traffic authorities will need to consult widely when undertaking reviews of existing and forecast traffic levels in their area and in taking a decision as to whether it would be appropriate to set targets for reducing those levels or rates of growth.

However, we go further than my noble friend in identifying those bodies with which we expect local authorities to consult. We are clear that in addition to principal councils and the Highways Agency, as envisaged by his amendment, we would also expect other tiers of government such as district councils, as well as local residents and businesses to be consulted. Equally, we would expect local authorities to ensure that any targets they set, together with the measures they envisage implementing to achieve them, were compatible with the relevant structure and local plans for their areas.

However, we believe that it would be more appropriate to deal with these matters in subsequent guidance for local authorities to be issued by the Secretary of State rather than on the face of the Bill. As my honourable friend the Minister for Railways, Roads and Local Transport made clear in another place at an earlier stage in this Bill's parliamentary progress, the crucial advantage of dealing with these matters in guidance is that it allows time for us to consider with the Local Authority Associations and other relevant bodies the detailed mechanics of how all this might work. The Government's view is that it would be a mistake to be too prescriptive on the face of the Bill only to discover subsequently that the drafting was defective and that we needed further primary legislation to implement its provision. Having said that, we believe that these matters are best dealt with in guidance.

Our legal advice is that there are several technical deficiencies in the drafting of the amendments. For example, the first amendment refers to the Highways Agency when in fact this agency has no legal existence or identity separate from the Secretary of State for Transport. Neither is it made clear what is meant by "neighbouring principal councils". Reference is also made in the third amendment to "other land use plans" when such plans have not previously been mentioned or defined in the Bill. Finally, the first two amendments, which specify the bodies with which principal councils must consult before preparing their reports, would introduce an unwelcome duplication in so far as subsection (6) of Clause 2 enables the Secretary of State to issue guidance to principal councils in regard to who should be consulted in connection with the preparation of reports.

My noble friend Lord Brabazon of Tara referred to the letter I wrote to him—I shall make it available to other noble Lords—concerning the points he raised at Second Reading. The Government agree that such consultation should be undertaken. Any targets and associated measures to achieve them, if not based on the widest possible consultation and broad local consensus, are unlikely to be implemented successfully. Indeed we would go further still and would expect local authorities to consult also with other tiers of local government, including district councils, as well as with local residents and businesses. That will be made absolutely clear in the guidance to be issued to local authorities in due course by the Secretary of State.

We shall, in turn, want to consult extensively with local authorities and with appropriate national organisations in drawing up this guidance. We believe that the crucial advantage of dealing in guidance with issues such as consultation, as well as the linking of targets to bids for capital funding, is that it will allow us time to consider with the local authority associations and with other interested bodies the detailed mechanics of how this might work. We believe that it would be a mistake at this stage to be too prescriptive on the face of the Bill only to discover subsequently that the drafting was defective and that we needed further primary legislation to implement its provisions.

As I made clear at Second Reading, the Government believe that this is a worthwhile Bill whose principles we support strongly. In turn, the guidance we intend issuing will ensure that local authorities take the views of relevant interested parties and local circumstances fully into account in drawing up their reports and, where appropriate, setting targets. However, we believe that the technical deficiencies which I have identified in the amendments would put the laudable aims behind the Bill, and indeed the Bill itself, at risk. With the greatest respect to my noble friend, I ask him to withdraw the amendment.

7.30 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

The amendments seek to provide for full consultation and to provide that the reports of local councils relate to land use plans. These are important matters. I very much agree with the substance of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth. It is because I do so that I want to see these provisions in guidance. They will be in guidance, as we have heard this evening, assuming that the Bill reaches the statute book.

I said at Second Reading that I would not be supportive of guidance which did not include those points. The guidance has a place in the Bill in that Clause 2(6) allows for guidance and councils must have regard to that guidance.

With regard to consultation, your Lordships have heard the assurances given this evening. They echo assurances given by the Minister at the Committee stage in another place. At Second Reading I likened the consultation process to that of Local Agenda 21s where local authorities are successfully working with the bodies identified by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, in drawing up those plans. That process should be replicated in connection with these traffic reports.

On consultation with neighbouring authorities, the point is well made that no traffic management can work if it merely shunts a problem across a boundary, whether it is to the next street, to the next ward, to the next borough or to the next county. I know that locally from my own experience extremely well. On consultation with the Highways Agency—in other words, the Department of Transport—one must of course relate to roads which are within departmental control. In London, for instance, the traffic director has to be consulted on certain matters. Wherever the roads are in the hierarchy, they are part of the same network. On consultation with local businesses—for instance, chambers of commerce—I have experience of the valuable job local chambers of commerce and local businesses individually have done in presenting the concerns of business.

The consultation that has been identified by the noble Lord seems to be part of the growing process of working in partnership, which so many sectors of society are now taking forward very successfully. "Partnership" has become something of a buzzword over the past few years, but partnerships are working well and are growing. I take no issue with the substance of the amendments because the points raised are necessary for the reporting process to work. The organisations and bodies referred to will often have similar aims, although they will sometimes have different priorities. Local business is likely to be concerned with the local economy, local employment and so on. Local councils and businesses are working together to increase regeneration in areas where that is required. They must be consulted, and, as I see it, they will be.

There is also the issue of land use planning. Planning is not about restricting development for the sake of restricting development. There are sometimes arguments about whether a proposed development is appropriate. Those are not necessarily—in fact, not that often—on traffic grounds. There are all kinds of reasons for traffic issues coming into the equation. Local land use plans, to be good plans, refer to environmental considerations, as do transport policies and programmes. Both are part of the responsibility of the same local authority, not of separate departments—again, a holistic approach, if I may put it that way. That is why the reports envisaged must relate to land use plans.

However, as has been said, it is not necessary to put these matters on the face of the Bill. They will be in guidance. If the list of consultees identified in the amendments is to be restricted to those proposed, it will be incomplete, as we have already heard. For instance, there is no reference to local residents or to other tiers of local authority. We have heard about drafting difficulties. I think it is a little tough for the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, to have been bowled that one at this late stage. However, it is an issue which we must take seriously.

Reference has been made to the letter from Friends of the Earth. I have not seen the letter. The noble Lord said it is a letter to his advisers; a letter from what I would describe as one campaigning organisation to—I do not know who the noble Lord's advisers are—possibly another campaigning organisation. Friends of the Earth is a campaigning organisation. I do not share that point with it. But that is not to say that I would in any way deny the valuable work it has done on the substance of this issue. If apology is required I hope the noble Lord will take from me that I mean quite straightforwardly that the amendments put forward and the value of the Bill are for your Lordships to assess. We shall do so.

I said at Second Reading that the Bill is not anti-car. It is about matching the car to the needs of the community. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, will accept my thanks for raising these important issues. But I hope he will also accept that his amendments are not necessary and, as they are drawn, contain some inherent problems. I hope he will be satisfied with the Government's assurances, which I was glad to hear because they were assurances I wanted too, and that on that basis he will feel able, following this debate and following the placing of all these points on the record, to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, for his remarks. I am glad that he and all Members of the Committee who have spoken in this short debate tonight have agreed that the amendments are not contentious. I was also glad to hear the noble Lord opposite give an undertaking to consult with me and others should he be in a position so to do. My noble friend Lord Brabazon of Tara stole the note that I had written down when the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, spoke. I wrote down, I hope I have no reason to take him up on that offer". He would expect me to say that, would he not?

Perhaps I may address one or two remarks to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, whom, I notice, is extraordinarily well supported on the Benches behind her on this occasion. I wonder why? Had she engaged me in some meaningful consultation, it might not even have been necessary for me to have kept the Committee this late tonight. I am glad that she emphasised the matter of partnership. We seem to be moving in that direction. Sometimes they work and sometimes they do not. I am also glad that she spoke about this Bill not being anti-car. We talk so glibly about being anti-car. It is not only the car, as part of the transport system, that does damage; it is the whole of the system, whether it is the private motor car, a truck, a bus, tram or train. In dealing with the matters in the Bill, we are dealing with the transport system—not just one element of it. I say to the noble Baroness so that all her friends can go home; that I shall not divide the Committee.

I now turn to my noble friend the Minister. I am grateful to him for agreeing that there will be full identification of consultees. I hear what he said about guidance being preferable. I do not agree with him, but there it is. He will not be surprised that I was not surprised that his legal advice was that there are technical deficiencies in the amendments. Were there more time, I would take these amendments and trim them for Report stage. I have had my say and I have heard the answers. I am not convinced. I have the feeling that the Committee is not minded to go through the Division Lobby at this time and in that case I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 2 to 4 not moved.]

Clause 2 agreed to.

Clauses 3 and 4 agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment.

Report received.

Then, Standing Order No. 44 having been suspended (pursuant to Resolution of 18th March), Bill read a third time and passed.