HL Deb 02 February 1998 vol 585 cc426-7

2.46 pm.

Lord Islwyn asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied with the current level of road maintenance.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, no. Too little has been spent on maintenance in recent years and, as a result, the condition of our roads has deteriorated. That is why we recently announced a 50 per cent. increase in spending on trunk road capital maintenance next year. That should be sufficient to prevent further deterioration. Future levels of provision are under consideration in the comprehensive spending review.

Lord Islwyn

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is vital that our road network is properly maintained? According to the Transport Select Committee in its report early last year that work was not being done. Can the Minister indicate why it has been held up? Is it not a penny wise and pound foolish policy? The ultimate bills are often five to six times greater. For the future efficiency of British economy, will the Minister ensure that our roads are properly maintained?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I accept a great deal of what my noble friend says. Not spending money in a timely fashion on maintenance certainly causes future bills to be much higher. That is why we took the decisions we did in regard to reversing the downward trend of investment in maintenance. It is a question for the previous government as to why the work was held up in the past; they cut the road maintenance programme.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her comments in relation to trunk roads. However, does she accept that that is only part of the problem? Local roads in many parts of the country are just as bad, if not worse than trunk roads. What do the Government intend to do about them?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I accept that cuts made by the previous government affected local as well as national roads. We have taken priority action on the national road network because damage to roads is done predominantly by heavy goods vehicles and although the network comprises less than 4 per cent. of all roads it carries more than 50 per cent. of such vehicles. We are examining the issues and many local authorities are looking at funding for maintenance in their own areas where the same considerations in regard to investment apply. We are considering these matters in the context of the current comprehensive spending review.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, does the Minister agree that poor road maintenance is not only a waste of a national asset: it is also a matter of safety? Does she agree also that the categories of road user most affected are pedestrians and cyclists, who are the very categories we are now trying to encourage?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the effect on safety of bad and deteriorating road surfaces is sometimes underestimated. It does not just affect cars or lorries; it affects cyclists and pedestrians as well.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, we are encouraged by the announcement of government spending on the trunk road network. However, can the Minister explain why the standard spending assessment for highway maintenance by local authorities is set to fall next year by 3.5 per cent? The vast majority of roads are under the control of local authorities. The National Road Maintenance Condition Survey says that approximately 5,7(K) kilometres of major roads need urgent structural repair: the County Surveyors Society says that that figure underestimates the extent of the problem. Are there any plans to review the workings of the National Road Maintenance Condition Survey?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the methodology of the survey to which the noble Lord refers was considered by the Transport Research Laboratory for the County Surveyors Society. Its conclusion was that it was sound, although it suggested some minor changes, particularly in the presentation of the data. We are certainly taking that on board.

As to the noble Lord's point on the condition of local roads, I said in my previous reply that we had to consider what the priority was. We decided that the priority was the national road network, particularly because of the increased damage to that network caused by the large amount of freight traffic on it. However, we are looking within the comprehensive spending review at what the standard spending assessment for road maintenance ought to be for local authorities for the future.