HL Deb 02 February 2004 vol 656 cc444-6

2.57 p.m.

Lord Berkeley asked Her Majesty's Government:

What obligations local authorities have to de-ice footpaths and roads.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, Section 111 of the Railways and Transport Safety Act 2003 requires that highway authorities in England and Wales ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that safe passage along a highway is not endangered by snow or ice. A corresponding requirement on Scottish authorities is imposed by Section 34 of the Roads (Scotland) Act 1984.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend the Minister for that very interesting reply. Is he aware that 24 hours after the snowfall last week many roads had been treated but most footpaths were sheets of ice? Is it the fact that local authorities do not find it reasonably practicable to treat footpaths, or that they are too lazy, or that they do not have the equipment? Does he agree that many times more people are affected by icy footpaths—put at more risk of broken bones—than by a few slides in a car?

Lord Burnham

My Lords—

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend and I shall try to answer him before listening to the noble Lord, Lord Burnham. The code that governs these issues makes no distinction between priorities for pedestrians and footpaths and those for roads. However, it is inevitable that with the enormous media interest in what happens to road transport, particularly with regard to motorways—as we recall from last year—local authorities are bound to be concerned about keeping crucial routes open so that people can get to work and get home. I agree with my noble friend entirely that footpaths should receive equal priority.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, is the minister—

Noble Lords


Lord Burnham

My Lords, I apologise to the House for the delay in getting to my feet. Following the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, am I right in thinking that if a householder clears the ground in front of his house, he is liable if anyone should fall or damage themselves? If that is the case, can anything be done about that?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the noble Lord has lighted upon a difficult issue in terms of the law. No householder is at all responsible provided he does not touch the pavement, which after all is owned by the local authority. The moment the householder touches the pavement with a view to improving the situation, but takes action that may lead to a deterioration, his action may render him culpable. That is the difficulty that we face.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, is the Minister aware that last week when Old Palace Yard was full of ice it was cleared by the good offices of Black Rod so that it was safe for your Lordships?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, we are all used to the diligence of Black Rod in all matters regarding the House. I am delighted to hear how gainfully employed he was last week to the advantage of us all.

Lord Bradshaw

My Lords, all local authorities face considerable funding difficulties, are subject to criticism from road users, pedestrians and, of course, motorists, and funding is made available through the block grant. Will the Minister therefore please tell us regarding a review of local government funding whether the funds available for highway-related matters and pavement-related matters will be clearly identified in future instead of being carried forward in the block grant as for any other purpose?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the role of local authorities that we are discussing competes with very many other priorities. I believe that the House will recognise the reluctance to identify this matter as a particular priority requiring specific allocation of funds. However, the noble Lord is right that when local authorities have duties laid upon them they require the resources to fulfil their obligations. I do not believe that local authorities found that the tackling of the problem that occurred last week was hindered by a very significant lack of resources.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, the noble Lord's response to my noble friend Lord Burnham was extremely interesting. I was not aware that members of the public were liable if someone slipped after they had cleared the pavement. In view of that and the desirability that everyone should do their bit in this respect, will the noble Lord suggest to his colleagues in government that perhaps a change might be made to the law? That could be done very easily under the Regulatory Reform Act. I should have thought that would be highly desirable.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I have no doubt at all that my colleagues in the appropriate department have considered this matter over a period of time. It is an interesting area of law and contrasts with the way in which other countries address the responsibility of householders. I merely reflected how difficult the situation is. Such cases brought against householders are few and far between. I merely indicated that the local authority owns the pavement and takes responsibility for its proper upkeep in all weathers.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, my noble friend may say that this is an interesting area of law but I find it alarming that something I have done for years every time there has been snow may render me liable for legal action. Is there not a case for dealing urgently with this matter? It is a fairly simple point in law and yet after this episode at Question Time no one will sweep the front of their pavement.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, that would be a great pity. I would have acted to the detriment of the nation if my contribution led to such a response. Of course, if people completely, utterly and totally clear away all the snow and return the pavement to the condition it was in before the snow landed, they will have done an excellent job. I am sure that all conscientious citizens do that. That is why any cases brought against householders in such circumstances are very few and far between. I merely reflected that if the snow is cleared in a less than complete manner and ice is left which is more dangerous than the original covering of snow, it may not necessarily be the local authority that is responsible but the householder for having dealt with the matter inadequately.

Lord Clarke of Hampstead

My Lords, at the height of the skidding around that occurred last week the Highways Agency spokesperson said on the radio that the incorrect salt was used as the temperature was six degrees below freezing. If the temperature had been five degrees below freezing, the salt would have been okay. Is that an accurate statement on the part of the Highways Agency? If it is, perhaps Black Rod could advise local authorities where to get their salt.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the Question is about local authorities but my noble friend mentioned the Highways Agency. Different forms and different concentrations of salt have different effects at different temperatures. The time at which the salt is laid down is important. It can be laid down too early as the snow may arrive slightly later than anticipated. Therefore, although it appears that the Highways Agency has acted promptly, the snow may cover the salt which does not result in the effect that we would all wish. We are not dealing with a precise science as regards road clearing in these conditions. I am grateful to my noble friend for his question as much mirth was generated by the statement that different concentrations of salt have different effects upon snow, ice and, indeed, water.

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