HL Deb 24 April 2001 vol 625 cc86-8

2.51 p.m.

Lord Marlesford asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they intend to take to improve the cleanliness of those motorways and trunk roads for which the Highways Agency is responsible.

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

My Lords, the Highways Agency aims to secure continuous improvement in its routine maintenance and to move towards performance-related procurement for all new contracts. One of the performance criteria of the new contracts is an environmental amenity index that includes the overall cleanliness of the road. The Highways Agency is also working to target litter at its source by making drivers aware of the effect on the environment of refuse thrown from vehicles.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that slightly uninspiring Answer. Does he agree that the state of our roads creates a very had impression on foreign visitors and that it is bad for the self-respect of the British people? Is he as irritated as I am by the fact that large sums of taxpayers' money are paid to contractors to clean roads and that they are manifestly failing to fulfil those contracts properly? Does he agree that this should be one of the easiest problems for the Government, or any government, to solve? Does he, as a former general secretary of the Labour Party, agree that we might perhaps on this issue at least have a cross-party concordat? Does he think that the Labour Party would be prepared to sign up to cleaner British roads by the end of the next Parliament?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, regrettably, the formal position in this House is that I answer for the Government rather than the Labour Party. I am sure that all parties in this House would wish to see a reduction in litter whether on our highways or in our urban streets and villages. I do not necessarily accept that the position on our highways is worse than elsewhere. I say that from my experience of driving on roads in other countries. Nevertheless, there is on occasion a problem. As regards roads that are the responsibility of the Highways Agency, the managing agents for the Highways Agency inspect them every day. Of course, the prime responsibility is to keep roads open. Therefore, obstructions and litter which constitute a safety hazard are removed first. Nevertheless, in designing the new contracts the agency has recognised the need substantially to improve litter clearance.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, does the Minister consider that abandoned cars constitute litter? Last weekend I saw three cars which had apparently been abandoned for weeks and weeks. Do the Government intend to do anything about that?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the legal position with regard to abandoned cars is complex in that one has to establish whether they are abandoned or simply untaxed. However, through pilot projects in two London boroughs—one has already been completed in north Kent—we are co-ordinating powers to enable abandoned cars to be removed rapidly through cooperation between the various agencies. Those cars will be disposed of if they are not speedily claimed. Therefore, there is a new co-ordination of powers to deal with what I accept is a growing problem.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, in my part of Somerset tyres are regularly dumped on verges. Cannot non-custodial sentences be imposed to help clear up something to which we all object?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, a range of penalties is available to the courts but, of course, it is difficult to catch those who litter highways. I suspect that in Somerset as elsewhere it is difficult to catch those who dump tyres. However, tyres constitute a safety hazard and should be dealt with as a matter of absolute priority by the district council or the relevant highway authority.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, will my noble friend give the House statistics on the amount of litter dumped on the roads over the past five or 10 years, as I have the impression that the situation has improved? Can my noble friend provide some information on that matter as many roads on which I drive look much cleaner than they were five or 10 years ago?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I cannot give that information as regards trunk roads and highways. However, the Highways Agency is under the impression that there has been an improvement and that impression is borne out by those who carry out the contracts. Certainly as regards urban litter, despite problems in particular areas there has been a measurable improvement over the past five years.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, will the noble Lord reflect upon the fact that his initial somewhat relaxed Answer to my noble friend did not exactly portend any very energetic action on the part of either himself or his department? Will be take the opportunity raised by my noble friend's Question to stir up his department and get it to deal with something which is an appalling nuisance?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord and to the House that I am so relaxed and uninspired today! I believe that the new form of contract, which includes the environmental elements to which the Highways Agency is committed, is a major improvement and will be energetically enforced. Someone who is both inspired and distinctly not relaxed—namely, the Prime Minister—today announced a number of measures to deal with litter, principally in urban areas. Those include the establishment of a street warden scheme; an extra £50 million for environmental improvements, enabling local authorities to retain and recycle money gained in fines from litter dumping; and the introduction of a new scheme under the Youth Justice Board to involve young offenders in removing litter, graffiti and so on. The Prime Minister made a major speech today designed to improve quality of life, principally in our urban areas. We are being very energetic and totally unrelaxed about these matters.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, rubbish on our roads unfortunately includes wildlife. Do authorities still as a matter of course collect badgers, muntjaks and any deer that are killed on our roads? If so, do they systematically test all of them for disease or infection?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, as regards roads for which the Highways Agency is responsible, those animals are systematically collected. I am under the impression that county bodies also collect them on county roads. However, I need to find out about testing for infection. I suspect that that is not comprehensive but I shall reply to the noble Baroness on that point.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, would it be a good initiative if Members of your Lordships' House were to draw to the Minister's attention roads that they find to be unacceptably dirty?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, that would be interesting. However, I am not sure whether it would be helpful. On a number of occasions the noble Lord has drawn to my attention the state of roads in the county of Suffolk. Should other noble Lords be equally inspired—if I may use that word—we shall take all such complaints seriously.