HL Deb 13 March 1998 vol 587 cc432-7

12.52 p.m.

Baroness Hayman rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 9th February be approved [23rd Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the Local Authorities (Transport Charges) Regulations authorise local highway authorities to impose charges for work done to carry out some highways, road traffic regulation and traffic functions. They also widen the scope of services for which a discretionary charging power is available and clarify the ability of local authorities to charge for these functions.

The regulations are being brought under Section 150 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989, which provides a power for the Secretary of State to make regulations providing local authorities with the discretion to charge for certain activities where there is no other clear statutory power to do so.

The regulations have been the subject of consultations with local government and other representative bodies. They cover a range of situations but in general allow authorities to transfer the burden of cost from council tax payer to specific individuals or companies which want services for personal benefit or who impose extra costs by their actions.

The items for which a charge may be made are listed in the tables in the schedule to the regulations. There are 22 items in all. Perhaps I may expand on the areas which were the focus of debate in another place.

Table 1 lists 10 items of work. Nine of these relate to the effects of building work on the highways. They allow charging for the consideration of applications for putting skips, scaffolding, building materials, rubbish and street hoardings on the highway, together with related matters as detailed in the table. They also allow charging for applications relating to cellars under streets and construction of vehicle crossings.

The last item in Table 1 applies to the local highway authority's duty to attend to clear debris from accident sites, allowing recovery of their reasonable costs in clearing the debris and reinstatement. In another place the question arose as to who would be charged under this item. The authority will be able to send its bill to such parties to the accident as appear to it to be responsible. But this is not the end of the matter. The ultimate responsibility for the debris falls to those who caused the accident, as there would have been no debris if the accident had not occurred. We therefore envisage that the local authorities' costs will form part of the third party claims made on motor insurance. An innocent party will therefore be able to pass this through to the insurance of the other driver.

There could be circumstances, though we think they will be rare, where debris results from a totally external cause. I have in mind very extreme weather—like that recently experienced in Selsey. I want to stress that charging for clearance of accident debris will be limited to cases where it is established that a particular person was responsible. However, this is rather different from the case where the insurers and drivers involved in a traffic accident decide to treat costs between them on a no-fault basis. This is simply a way of defining the basis of the settlement of costs and does not absolve them of responsibilities for the costs of third parties. We have allowed until 1st April 1999 before this item becomes effective to allow time for insurers to assess the impact on their costs.

Table 2 deals with parking, traffic signs and special events. Items in this table allow authorities to charge for considering applications for exemptions from traffic restrictions, temporary or permanent suspension of parking places and related costs of variance orders, including the putting up of traffic signs, cones and street notices. Item 4 allows charging for making temporary orders; for example, where there is a need to restrict traffic on a road because of works.

Item 5 covers charges for anything done in connection with special events orders, and item 9 enables similar charges in connection with special events within a London borough. Special event orders are temporary traffic restriction orders to aid the holding of sporting, social or entertainment events on the highway. Local authorities would be able to recover their costs in making a special events order and other action such as the putting up of signs.

We emphasise that the power to charge for special events will be permissive. It is open to local authorities to waive some or all of their costs in making a special events order, for example for non-profit or charitable events. On the other hand, organisations that arrange commercial events should be prepared to meet the cost which their events impose. In another place it was suggested that that might allow charging in relation to political demonstrations. I can assure this House that the regulations only apply in relation to sporting, social or entertainment events.

Items 7 and 8 allow charges for considering requests to place directional traffic signs and for placing such signs. This clarifies the power of local traffic authorities to charge applicants for considering requests for white and brown tourist signs, even if the application is turned down, as well as to recover the costs of providing signs. Local traffic authorities will also be able to charge for considering requests for temporary signs, such as those directing traffic to housing developments. We envisage that one application will normally cover all the signs requested for a particular destination, although the scale of the charge may reflect extra work involved where many signs are to be erected.

Road user organisations will not be charged for permission to use temporary signs to guide and direct traffic in the vicinity of major public gatherings and events. This is the effect of other regulations, the Temporary Traffic Signs (Prescribed Bodies) England and Wales Regulations 1998, which were laid on 29th January and which provide exemption for temporary directional signing by the AA, RAC and Cyclists' Touring Club. In another place, the Government were asked whether signing which is put up regularly on a seasonal basis by those organisations would also be exempt; I can confirm that that is the case.

Paragraph 4 of the regulations states that, the authority shall have regard to the cost to them". dealing with the matters in question. This formulation was also a focus of debate in another place. It is intended to allow some flexibility to authorities in setting their rates for charges. In particular it will allow them to determine a common scale which may apply to regularly received applications. But there is a clear requirement that the charges are related to the costs involved. I also reiterate that the powers are discretionary and authorities can waive or reduce charges, for example, as a gesture of support for local events.

A number of local authorities outside London charge for concessionary travel passes and permits, and Table 3 of these regulations gives a clear basis for what is the present position. The regulations give the London boroughs the same powers as other local authorities to charge for a permit or replacement permit. However it is a requirement of the London concessionary fare scheme that the London boroughs act unanimously when setting the terms of concessions. The regulations reflect this special feature of the London scheme; so any decision which the London boroughs take to use this power to charge can take effect only if they are unanimous both in agreeing to a charge being made and on its level.

The particular worry of the London boroughs is fraudulent claims for replacement permits. These regulations provide them with the appropriate powers to address this issue. I must stress that we are not imposing any duty on the London boroughs and any decisions they take as to whether to use this power will be a matter for their own collective judgment. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 9th February be approved [23rd Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Hayman.)

1 p.m.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for introducing the order with her usual clarity and for the helpful explanatory note to the order, which makes things fairly clear. I wish to raise a couple of points. The noble Baroness has already largely covered one of the points I had intended to raise.

The first is with regard to item 1 of Table 1, which deals with the deposit of skips on highways. Living, as I do, in London within a controlled parking zone area, I was under the impression that local authorities already charged for skip licences, but perhaps I am wrong. If the deposit of a skip also requires the suspension of a parking place under item 2 of Table 2, will the householder or the builder be liable to a double charge?

Similarly, in regard to item 2 of Table 2, suspension of parking places, the Minister in another place (col. 5, 4th March, 3rd Standing Committee on delegated legislation) said that it would allow local authorities to recover the administrative costs of suspending parking places from commercial organisations. If one were moving house, for example, and asked for parking to be suspended, would one be liable, as a private householder, to pay the cost of that? One would obviously not be a commercial organisation. It might be wise for those moving house to make the application themselves rather than allow the removal company to do so.

The noble Baroness dealt at some length with item 10, the charge for removal of debris following an accident. This is possibly the most controversial part of the order and I am glad that it will not come into effect for another year. I believe work still needs to be done between local authorities, the Government and insurance companies in regard to how this charge will be collected and how the blame will be attached. Occasionally one has an accident when the other driver agrees that it was entirely his or her fault. However, some time later one finds, when the insurance companies get together, that they have decided to share the costs. Will the local authority accept the insurance companies' interpretation of what happened and their apportionment of costs in collecting the sum for the removal of debris?

A slightly curious matter, on which the noble Baroness may be able to help me, is that this measure appears to refer only to local highway authorities. The Government's trunk roads are not covered by this order. Is there any proposal to extend this measure to them? Perhaps a power already exists to do that.

The other item which causes me a little concern is paragraph 4 of the order relating to the amount of charge. Some local authorities sometimes complain about their lack of resources. I hope that this will not present an opportunity for them to raise money by charging more than they should do. I appreciate that the order says that they should have regard to the cost to them of dealing with matters of the description in question. I hope that that is strong enough to prevent this kind of practice.

Apart from those matters, we support the order.

Viscount Simon

My Lords, I am not certain whether I heard my noble friend correctly or whether it was a figment of my imagination, but I thought she said that the police will be able to recover some of their costs in relation to road traffic accidents. If it was a figment of my imagination, is it intended to make that possible some time in the future?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I do not believe that I talked about the police recovering costs. This regulation deals specifically with local authorities. That also applies to an issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, about highway authorities. As he correctly pointed out, trunk roads are not local authority roads. The relevant highway authority is the Highways Agency, which does not have the powers described in these regulations under the Local Government and Housing Act 1989; nor would local authorities acting as agents of the Highways Agency, as they sometimes do, have those powers, although a very small proportion of motorways are owned by local authorities and therefore would be covered by the regulations. There are no immediate plans for legislation in this area, but obviously we shall look to see whether there is a read-across with regard to this provision.

Skips are paid for in terms of their hire. The issue of whether local authorities can charge for the granting of a licence for the skip is a matter over which there has been some dispute when some local authorities have considered that they had these powers. The purpose of this set of regulations is to clarify that they do have such powers.

It is correct that a householder could have to pay both for the application to deposit a skip and for the application to suspend a parking place in which to put it. We do not believe that parking bay suspensions are likely to be generally necessary in residential areas. However, the presence of such parking spaces implies that parking space is severely limited and so, if a skip were blocking a space, that would impose inconvenience on the community—for example, by builders in a busy high street. It is therefore right that the cost of the application for suspension of the parking place as well as that for the deposit of the skip should be borne by the beneficiary.

With reference to the issue raised in another place with regard to the distinction between commercial activities and domestic activities, the Minister was giving an example when she mentioned commercial reasons for the suspension. As I understand it, there is no distinction in the regulation and it would thus apply to householders as well.

I note the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, about the need for further clarification with regard to who would be responsible for the costs for the deposit of debris on the highway. The order enables authorities to recover the costs involved from the person responsible for the deposit. The Government are satisfied that in practice that will be the person eventually found liable for the accident, because without the accident, the debris would not have been deposited. Obviously, it is important that insurance companies are clear about this and that in the circumstances which the noble Lord described the provisions are well understood. Part of the reason for delaying the implementation is so that there can be clarity as regards that matter.

Finally, I note the noble Lord's concerns about local authority charging policies. I return to the point that there is a very clear obligation that the charges should have regard to the actual costs incurred. On that basis, I commend the regulations to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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