HL Deb 02 November 2000 vol 618 cc1152-6

(" . In section 13(5) of the Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Act 1995, after paragraph (d) there shall be inserted— (dd) in permitting goods vehicles operators to establish an operating centre the traffic commissioner is satisfied that the centre is available, suitable and of sufficient capacity and must take into account the suitability of the local public road network for the establishment of such a centre."").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I rise to move Amendment No. 303 standing in the names of my noble friends Lord Bradshaw and Lady Thomas. There is a curious anomaly in the granting of heavy goods vehicle operating licences. The power to grant those licences is vested in the traffic commissioner but he has no authority to take into account the suitability of the local road network. I have with me a copy of the guidance issued to traffic commissioners. That guidance states clearly that the local road network is a matter for the local highway authority. However, in most cases small-scale operating centres, particularly those in rural areas, do not require planning permission. This means that the only mechanism open to the local authority to lodge objections is to write to the traffic commissioner and raise the problem with him. However, he can take no action in the matter. That is a source of immense frustration to everyone concerned.

I recall attending an inquiry in my area at which local parish councils were up in arms. Everyone understood the problems that could be caused. Although the traffic commissioner was sympathetic, he could do nothing about it. Even where planning permission is required, the current guidance does not allow local authorities to take into account the cumulative effect of traffic generation as a result of planning applications. As a local councillor, like a good number of colleagues I receive many complaints about lorries on rural roads. It is difficult to explain to people that the local authority is powerless to prevent a proliferation of small operating centres in their area. Lorries which use unsuitable routes cause great damage to road surfaces, kerbs and bridges. These vehicles are intimidating to other road users and are extremely noisy in quiet rural communities. Our amendment simply seeks to include within the remit of the traffic commissioner such matters as the suitability and the capacity of the local road network. Surely, that is a commonsense and long overdue measure. I beg to move.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, I rise to support what appears to be a logical amendment. This matter was discussed at length in Committee. I understand the problems if a number of lorries use a small country lane. Any new business which starts up will feel that perhaps it is being discriminated against if it is not allowed to add to what is already there, which may or may not be regarded as acceptable. It is extraordinary that at the moment no one can make a decision and stop additional traffic using these roads. Often I detect that governments do not believe that the traffic commissioners are the right people to make such decisions. However, they are very close to heavy goods vehicles and public transport. One would have thought that there was a good deal of merit in adopting an amendment like this to respond to concerns in many parts of the countryside.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, if the situation is as the noble Baroness describes, this amendment raises an important point about heavy goods vehicles and PSV operations being unsuitable in many areas. I look forward to hearing the response of the Minister.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I do not have significant difficulty with the amendment moved by the noble Baroness. However, I suspect the Minister will say that the traffic commissioner already has the necessary powers. I have tabled Amendment No. 303A which seeks to require an applicant for an operator's licence to display a notice on the outside of the proposed operating centre. This is intended to be similar to the procedure for planning applications. Not everyone reads statutory advertisements in local papers, but those who are most affected will see the notice on the premises. The proposal is an adaptation of an amendment moved by the Minister's noble friend, Lord Clinton-Davis, when he was opposition spokesman for transport. I recall that on that occasion the noble Lord unsuccessfully tested the opinion of the House. First, does the Minister's view differ from that of his noble friend? Secondly, is he satisfied in general with the operation of the Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Act 1995?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, my noble friend Lord McIntosh says that if the noble Earl remembers that, it probably means that he voted against the amendment! He probably was not on the Conservative Benches at the time.

Perhaps I may deal, first, with the noble Earl's amendment, Amendment No. 303A. Under the Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Act operators are required to advertise their licence applications in one or more local newspapers. The onus lies with the applicant to satisfy the traffic commissioners that he has placed the advertisement correctly and to decide which newspaper meets his purposes. If the traffic commissioner is not satisfied he may refuse the application.

I am not sure whether this relates to the same period to which the noble Earl refers, but in 1996 there was a three-month feasibility trial of traffic area offices placing advertisements on behalf of applicants. That took place in two traffic areas. There was no significant increase in the number of representations received during the trial period. That indicates that, in the main, local residents are not unduly disadvantaged by the current system of placement of advertisements by applicants and would not be greatly advantaged by an alternative system. Therefore, I am not convinced that the noble Earl's amendment is necessary.

I am not convinced either by the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, Amendment No. 303. We went over some of this ground in Committee. It is not, as the noble Earl says, that I am arguing that the traffic commissioners have all the powers that they need in this area. What I would argue is that one has to make a distinction between the role of the traffic commissioners and the role of the local authorities in these areas.

Traffic commissioners have wide powers to decide whether an operating centre is suitable and of sufficient capacity for use by the goods vehicles that an operator plans to use from the site. In doing so, they will need to consider whether it has safe access and that it is in an acceptable location in terms of the environment and of residents in the immediate vicinity. But traffic commissioners can take the effect of the proposed operating centre into account only to the point at which the operating centre, or any private road from it, joins the public highway.

It is for local authorities in determining planning applications to have regard to the effect such developments would have on the surrounding road network. There are also powers under the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 to prohibit or restrict particular types of vehicles from using local roads on environmental grounds. Therefore, local authorities—the local highway authority—have powers to prohibit access along unsuitable roads to the operating centre where a more suitable access road is available. The traffic commissioners have the responsibility for looking at the safety, the environmental impact and the appropriateness of the centre in terms of the kind of lorries that will be using that centre.

I think that if we blur the relative responsibilities between the traffic commissioners, the planning authorities and the highway authorities, we will end up with a real mish-mash. At the moment, the noble Baroness's questions are best dealt with by the local authorities involved, either through planning or through road traffic, and not by putting this requirement on the traffic commissioners, who have a different role.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps he will respond to my noble friend's comment. Experience of dealing with these matters at a local authority level teaches one that there is a hole, as it were, between the highways authority's powers in these applications and the traffic commissioner's powers. That is the problem that we are trying to address. Someone needs the power to look at the applications in the context of a highways network. Under the legislation the highways department appears to be unable to do that.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the responsibilities are complementary. The traffic commissioner looks at the suitability of the depot. He looks at safety and environmental effects on the surrounding area. But the effect on the traffic is the responsibility of the highways authority. The planning of the centre and its impact on the surrounding area is the responsibility in most cases of the planning authority.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving away. It is often the case that the local authority does not need to grant planning permission because the centres are small— perhaps farms. Therefore, there will be only the traffic commissioner's proceedings going on. How will the local authority have the control the Minister says it should have when the traffic commissioner is specifically disbarred from taking that into account?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, if it is not a planning application, then a planning issue does not arise. There may, however, still be a traffic issue which is a matter for the highways authority. In some cases the highways authority may not be the same as the planning authority. Therefore, we are talking about three potential areas here. Nevertheless, the traffic impact is covered by the responsibilities of the highways authority.

If the noble Baroness is saying that there should be greater liaison between these various public bodies, I would not necessarily dissent. Clearly, there are parts of the country with which she or her noble friends are familiar where there has not been adequate liaison. This is not a question of powers, it is a question of co-operation.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market

My Lords, I am grateful for that reply. However, I am rather frustrated that I have not been able to explain adequately that there is a gap in the legislation which prevents the network and the overall effect of these applications being considered.

The Minister referred to the highways authority having its input, but it can do that only if a planning application is forthcoming. At that point it is allowed to have an input. But in many cases a planning application simply is not required.

The Minister also mentioned that it is possible for the highways authority to place a traffic regulation order. But one would then be banning all the heavy vehicles from that route, even the ones that were already there and had perhaps been operating for many years. The issue here is what to do about new applications. However, I can see that I am getting nowhere. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 303A not moved.]

Lord Berkeley moved Amendment No. 304: After Clause 255, insert the following new clause—