HL Deb 19 July 1999 vol 604 cc652-5

2.42 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied with the performance of the Highways Agency and, if so, why.

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

My Lords, on 27th October last I announced to your Lordships' House the start of a quinquennial "Next Steps" review of the Highways Agency. It is considering the agency's performance since its creation in 1994 and whether executive agency status remains the most appropriate institutional option for carrying forward the work it currently does. That review is nearing completion and I hope to announce the results shortly.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, now that the Government do not have a road-building programme in England, what is the need for the agency employees? Am I right in suggesting that from time to time—rather too often—they break off from their enforced idleness to cone off inordinate lengths of road for huge periods of time while they do trivial if any work upon them? Consequently motorists often have the disagreeable experience of travelling along great stretches of coned-off road with no one doing anything on them, not even resting.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I regret the noble Lord's experience. It is not entirely typical. Less than 1 per cent of motorway is under maintenance at any given time. We have shifted substantial resources into maintenance because it was neglected on both trunk and local authority roads for many years by the previous government. It is completely untrue to say that we have no road-building programme. Our targeted programme of improvement includes 37 major building schemes which are funded and which have a start date. That is quite different from the wish list we inherited from the previous regime.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, the Highways Agency has no functions or authority in Scotland so there is no question of its presence being missed there. Would not the Government therefore be well advised to study the arrangements in place in Scotland under the supervision of the Scottish Office? They may indicate another more satisfactory pattern.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, we are always prepared to learn, even from the Scottish Office. However, the Highways Agency is regarded internationally as being at the cutting edge of road technology and civil engineering. It is also highly regarded throughout the world in terms of its techniques and contracting activities. We have found that the Highways Agency, by and large, met its performance targets. There are some which are under review and new performance indicators will need to be set for the shift of policy towards maintenance and making better use of the network. However, by and large the agency has done well and it may be possible for the new Scottish Executive to learn from it.

Lord Richard

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the 1 per cent of motorway under improvement is infinitely mobile? Whichever motorway I travel on, I always seem to meet it.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I could not possibly establish that causal connection. One per cent of the motorway will be encountered on one in 100 journeys or one in 100 miles. If the noble Lord travels down to Devon, as I know he does, he will probably pass part of the motorway network being improved as a result of our insistence on better maintenance. It will probably be undertaken by the Highways Agency. But we need to maintain and improve our highways and the Highways Agency is doing a good job in achieving that.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, is it part of the function of the Highways Agency to oversee contracts to road building? If so, are those contracts performed according to time and budget?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, in terms of contracts for the trunk road network, the contracts are managed by the Highways Agency both for maintenance and building. In most cases those contracts are performing to time. If they are not to time, then of recent years penalty clauses have been included.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, is it a coincidence that the 1 per cent of roads under maintenance—as with the noble Lord, Lord Richard—is always in the area in which I drive? However, can the Minister tell the House what the budget would have been for this year, taking into account the planned increases by the previous government, and what the actual budget is for this year under the present Government?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am not sure to which budget the noble Baroness is referring. Is she referring to maintenance or the total figure for roads? As she will know, we reviewed the previous road programme, which did not have any fixed start dates or fixed funding. It is therefore difficult to compare it. However, present expenditure on roads in total is approximately £1.7 billion.

Lord Vivian

My Lords, can the Minister say when the M4 bus lane is going to be abolished?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the experiment on the M4 bus lane will last for some months yet. All the information and monitoring so far indicates that by turning what was previously a filter lane into a bus lane, the flow of both public transport and taxis has been improved.

Noble Lords


Lord Whitty

My Lords, some noble Lords have odd views reflecting media coverage which in this respect has been seriously misplaced. As far as we can tell, the scheme is working for buses and taxis and there has even been a slight improvement for the rest of the traffic on that road. We have to wait until the end of the experiment before any decision on its future can be taken.

Lord Peston

My Lords, has any advice been given to the Highways Agency as to when it should engage in road repair? In my experience and that of most noble Lords it seems to specialise in repairing roads during holidays or weekends—if one is heading for the coast—when one wants to use them. It does riot seem to occur to the agency to repair the roads at times when they are not used. That contrasts rather unfavourably, say, with France where we can drive enormous distances on outstanding roads and see no sign of maintenance. We get held up by car crashes, but we all know that the French are not yet ready for the motorcar anyway.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, in general the Highways Agency standing guidelines are to ensure minimum disruption. It is more difficult to carry out some maintenance in winter than it is in summer and additional safety problems arise when doing it at night rather than in the day. Nevertheless, the agency tries to do as much maintenance as possible outside peak periods.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, I heard the Minister say that minimum disruption is the target of the agency. However, until I heard him say so, I had no idea that its failure was so total. Can he confirm that?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am not sure that I fully understood the noble Lord's question. However, the position of the Highways Agency is that it will, with its contractors, plan to minimise the disruption to the flow of traffic. Sometimes it is inevitable that peak periods of traffic will be hit. We are trying to improve the degree of disruption and there are performance targets for the Highways Agency to that effect.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House why many of us who travel along motorways often find that nothing is happening on the repair area, but we are still held up? Why is no repair work taking place on such roads during long periods of the day?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, were the noble Lord not driving so fast through such areas, I suspect that he would observe that some testing, measuring and assessing needs to carried out before the actual work with the bulldozers and the task in earnest begins. It is perhaps over-simplistic to underestimate the degree of complexity that maintenance entails.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, can the noble Lord tell the House whether membership of this agency is a prime ministerial appointment?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it is a Next Steps agency of the department. Therefore, the agency's chief executive position is a Secretary of State appointment.