HL Deb 25 June 2004 vol 662 cc1518-26

2.37 p.m.

Baroness Hanham rose to move, That this House calls on Her Majesty's Government to revoke the Royal Parks and Other Open Spaces (Amendment) Regulations 2004 (S.I. 2004/1308), which came into force on 10 May, and to lay before it in its place regulations which require a resolution agreeing to the proposed change by each of the local authorities which abut or contain a Royal Park before the Royal Parks Agency may alter the speed limit in that Royal Park.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, my Motion to revoke statutory instrument 2004/1308 in respect of regulation 2(5) would amend Part 2 of Schedule 2 by substituting words about a 30 miles per hour speed limit coming down to 20 miles.

The issue here is not the rights or wrongs of 20 miles per hour speed limits generally. In some places, particularly in busy residential areas, these have their merits. But this order highlights a wider and more serious issue about traffic management and public accountability.

The Minister will be familiar with the background, but perhaps it is worth rehearsing it. The Royal Parks Agency, headed by Mr William Weston, an appointee of the Government, is a quango which is not accountable to anyone, save the Government. A few years ago the Royal Parks Agency announced that it was going to close a number of the gates of Richmond Park to traffic and possibly impose a 20-mile per hour speed limit. No clear reasons were given for that beyond the one given at the time by Mr Weston that, "something must be done".

There was no evidence of damage by pollution, damage to wildlife, damage to the park, no serious accident record and no dangerous speeding traffic. Indeed, in the consultation police raised concerns about the practicality of a 20 miles per hour limit on such a wide area, its enforceability and the risk of it encouraging overtaking that was not a problem in the park hitherto.

At no stage has the Royal Parks Agency been able to produce any scientific evidence to justify any of its proposals, which include the reduction of much-used car parking space giving elderly walkers access to the heart of the park. The Royal Parks Agency's proposals were opposed by all neighbouring local authorities, which are of course the elected bodies responsible to local people.

There was such an outcry—quite unprecedented in south-west London—about proposed closures of access by two gates that the Royal Parks Agency withdrew its plans, which would also have blocked transit across the park by one of the main routes that connect people north of the park with their hospital facilities in Kingston.

However, the Royal Parks Agency went ahead with the closure of the Robin Hood Gate, the main link from Kingston to the north of the park, not only for commuters but also for the many, including nurses, local authority employees and others who come to work in the area. At no stage has the Royal Parks Agency shown any understanding of the importance of free movement across the park to the economy of the area, or of local people's needs to use links across the park to reach schools, shopping centres, hospitals, dentists, places of work and friends.

The three neighbouring authorities—Kingston, Wandsworth and Richmond—all oppose the proposed changes. The Minister, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, kindly received a delegation representing the leaders of the three authorities on the closure of the Robin Hood Gate. I am told that he listened politely, as I would have expected, and agreed to consider any reports on traffic displacement around the park, but so far nothing has happened. Since then, the closure of the Robin Hood Gate has had a totally predictable effect, with Wandsworth experiencing problems on Roehampton Lane, additional queues at Danebury Avenue, and Kingston complaining of additional traffic in residential roads on Kingston Hill.

Now the Government and the Royal Parks Agency have come forward with a new order to reduce the speed limit to 20 miles an hour. Again, there is no safety justification for that, little or no local support, no authorisation by local authorities and no scientific case behind it. Indeed, self-evidently, slower driving is causing more visual pollution as cars take longer to cross the park and more noise and exhaust pollution as cars engage lower gears. If pollution is the problem, this is not the answer. As the police had forecast, cars are already overtaking more, creating a new hazard that did not exist before: there are lines of slow-moving traffic, and even reports of cyclists overtaking cars in a provocative manner when cars are driven at 20 miles an hour.

The situation regarding unilateral gate closures and limits is highly unsatisfactory. I ask for an assurance from the Minister that he will not allow the Royal Parks Agency to extend its experiments to any Royal Park without the agreement of the local authorities abutting on or containing that park.

I do not intend to press the Motion to a vote, but I believe that this unelected agency cannot be permitted to continue to act in disregard of the opinion of local elected authorities. I have chosen this latest order to flag the wider issue before Parliament and with the Minister.

Power without responsibility seems to describe the Royal Parks Agency's ability to act without considering the objections of local authorities and local people. That power must be used responsibly. I suggest that in the case of not only Richmond Park but also of all the Royal Parks the Royal Parks Agency must heed the views of the local democratically elected authorities before imposing change. If it will not do so voluntarily then, as my noble friend Lord Astor and the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, are doing, Parliament must seek ways to bring the agency under local democratic control.

I hope that the Minister will address the issue openly—I see the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, in his place—that he will listen and courteously but firmly invite the Royal Parks Agency also to listen to the voice of local authorities and their electorate. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House calls on Her Majesty's Government to revoke the Royal Parks and Other Open Spaces (Amendment) Regulations 2004 (S.I. 2004/1308), which came into force on 10 May, and to lay before it in its place regulations which require a resolution agreeing to the proposed change by each of the local authorities which abut or contain a Royal Park before the Royal Parks Agency may alter the speed limit in that Royal Park.—(Baroness Hanham.)

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, before dealing with the speed limit, to which the noble Baroness referred, perhaps I could mention another part of the order. It is not always easy to read such orders because one must put them into the context of previous regulations. However as I read the legislation, children under 10 will be able to use cycles, roller skates, rollerblades, skateboards and other foot-propelled devices in areas apart from those designated for that purpose by the Secretary of State—for which one must read "the Royal Parks Agency". If I have understood that correctly, I admit to considerable concern about that proposal. I declare an interest as a nearby resident to Richmond Park and as a user of it—not as a skateboarder; the foot-propelled device is my own two feet or my car. I use the park both to enjoy it and because I am one of the many who treat it as part of the local roads network. That is the issue—whether it should be treated as such. Sometimes, indeed often, I combine the two.

I have asked the Minister to explain the fact that the 20 miles per hour limit already applies in the park. I understand that it has applied since 10 May, which is when this order came into effect. It is understood locally to be experimental, and I understand the arrangement whereby this type of order applies unless and until Parliament knocks it out. It is odd that Parliament might put the Royal Parks in the position of having to remove the considerable signage that is now in place, including a lot of painting on the roads in the parks.

I asked a number of people locally their views on the 20 miles per hour limit. The general view was that it was a good thing, because it stopped them driving faster. One person said that it prompts him to avoid using the park as a through route because he does not like driving slowly. That is a good thing. We should be prompted not to use the park as a through route as part of the local roads network. Certainly, I have been aware of the fact that traffic has slowed down; it has had to slow down. I have also become aware of the different driving style that one must adopt when one is being overtaken by a cyclist. I am not one of the lycraclad brigade; I see it from a driver's point of view.

The Royal Parks, including Richmond Park, have a role that is completely different from that to which we have been referring. They are hugely important assets that London and the nation are lucky enough to have. I would like to put on record the views of the Friends of Richmond Park, who believe that handing the control of speed limits to the local councils would be a retrograde step, given that the council's primary interest is getting local traffic to use Richmond Park rather than local roads; and that the councils are driven, understandably, by local interests, while Richmond Park is a national asset. It is an SSSI, it is a national nature reserve, an area of outstanding national beauty, and it is an applicant for EC special area of conservation status.

The Friends of Richmond Park say that the interests of drivers should not have the priority that the local councils would afford them, and that the current experimental attempt by the Royal Parks Agency to make what they call minimal 10 miles per hour curtailments to through traffic should be accepted. They think that it is right that Royal Parks lie within the jurisdiction of the Royal Parks Agency under a remit from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to manage them primarily for pedestrians and for environmental protection. Local councils and Transport for London would not give environmental concerns the same priority as the DCMS and the Royal Parks Agency. Finally, they say that we need to reduce wear and tear on the park and that the through motorist has least claim to be in it. They refer to the need to allow children to walk and cycle to school through the park and to all the health issues of which the House is well aware.

It is undoubtedly the case that, when the park is closed to traffic, the area around the park in rush hour is almost impossible. I suspect that the closure of Robin Hood Gate, which gave access into the park only, not out, is even more of an issue than the speed limit. After all, with the speed limit, one can still get through the park in daylight hours, albeit a little more slowly and with more time to appreciate its huge assets. Twenty miles per hour is a compromise between tensions that are, I suspect, impossible to resolve.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, for raising the issue of Royal Parks. The issue has concerned me for some time. I do not say that I agree with some of the statements about speed limits made by the noble Baronesses who have spoken, but I do not think that that is the point; it is a question of accountability.

I have had many discussions, asked many questions and received many statements and letters on the Royal Parks—relating more to Green Park and Hyde Park than Bushy Park or Richmond Park. They demonstrate to me that the current management of the Royal Parks does not see itself as having to implement government transport policy or any other policy. Its prime consideration seems to be with putting cars first—the bigger and fatter, the better—pedestrians second and cyclists a poor third. I raised some of the issues in Committee on the Traffic Management Bill a few weeks ago.

I shall give your Lordships one or two examples. There is, as noble Lords will know, a big party going on in Hyde Park. It involves bringing in gear and equipment, as well as lots of people to put it up along North Carriage Drive. The people doing it have closed the westbound carriageway to all vehicles, including cycles, so that they can park the contractors' cars there. My wife was going up there the other night, and, like all cyclists, she ignored the "No entry" sign. After all, are cyclists really expected to go down Holland Park Road, which is highly dangerous? She got shouted at by two attendants who told her that she could not go down there, because the contractors have to park their cars there and they have priority.

The same thing happened when Constitution Hill was resurfaced earlier this year. The cycle lane was closed for six weeks and people were told to go on the road, on which the average speed of the cars is about 50 miles per hour. I see a speed camera there once a year. Fifty miles per hour is, to many cyclists, a dangerous speed, and, on such occasions, cyclists certainly do not overtake cars.

Last winter, when it snowed, they did not salt the cycle lanes—they expect you to ride up Park Lane—but they did salt the road that goes along the north of the Serpentine to a width of about 50 feet. The only people who use it are the police and the people who live in the houses in the middle of Hyde Park, which are, I suspect, grace and favour residences. They do not need a width of 50 feet. I telephoned Mr Weston and asked him to sort out the cycle lane and the footpath, which is heavily used, and was told that he did not have enough staff. To me, that indicates that they are not trying hard. There is a lack of accountability.

With the Traffic Management Bill, we talked about Transport for London having the ability to manage the traffic on certain routes that are not the responsibility of the Highways Agency—certain designated local authority routes. I tabled an amendment proposing that that should apply to certain designated routes in Royal Parks. One thinks of the Mall, Constitution Hill and, perhaps, Birdcage Walk, not the ones through Richmond Park. The message that I received from the Minister was that TfL could not give instructions to the Government and that the Government run the Royal Parks. Of course, that is true.

Last week, I tabled an amendment on Report suggesting that the solution, which I checked with a number of parliamentary lawyers, was to transfer, say, within two years, the responsibility for highways and traffic management of the Royal Parks to local authorities. I have been in discussions with Westminster City Council, which would welcome that provided the finance is sorted out, as one would expect. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said that that was not the case with the local authorities around Richmond Park, but it is one view.

I have now been told that that amendment is unacceptable: we are working on another one. But the point is that there needs to be a better way for the Royal Parks to fit into what the local community wants and to have some kind of accountability. Whether there should be a takeover of all the Royal Parks by the local authorities or the highways authorities, which we know include footpaths and cycleways, or whether there should be better communication, I am not sure. There has been a duty for the Royal Parks Agency and local authorities to communicate about highways and traffic management for some time, but I am told by TfL and, I think, Westminster City Council that that does not work very well. So that needs strengthening.

In conclusion, is your Lordships' House and the House of Commons really the place to talk about whether people should be allowed to light a bonfire in a park or should be allowed to take photographs with or without a tripod, or whether children under 9 or 10 years old should be allowed to do this, that or the other? That seems to be wrong. Surely, governments have better things to do. I appreciate that these are wonderful parks which are great assets to the country, but there is something wrong. There is a lack of democratic accountability. I look forward to my noble friend's response. I suspect that we shall pursue some of these issues—together, I hope—during the coming months and years.

2.57 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, for giving me such notice as she could of the purport of her Motion. Indeed, it is clear from the wording of the Motion that, primarily, she is referring to speed limits in the Royal Parks, although there are other issues that have been raised.

It is necessary that I should set out the basis on which the roads in the Royal Parks are governed. The Secretary of State is required under the Crown Lands Act 1581, as amended on many occasions, to manage Royal Parks on behalf of the Crown for the quiet enjoyment of the public. The park roads are an integral part of the parks.

Although a lot of people think of park roads as being part of the local road networks—in some cases, in fact, they are—they are not actually public highways. Most of them were built to service people who live in, work in and visit the Royal Parks. Most of them are closed at night. Commercial vehicles, with the exception of licensed taxicabs, are not allowed to use them unless they are delivering to people who live or work in the parks.

Some roads, such as The Mall and Constitution Hill, are ceremonial routes; others, such as Chestnut Avenue in Bushy Park and the Outer Circle and Inner Circle in Regent's Park have been specifically designed as features of the park landscape in their own right.

In managing the Royal Parks, of course we have to consider them partly as a means of getting from A to B, but they are an integral part of the parks in which they exist. We have to balance the effective movement of traffic with a wide range of other considerations—indeed, statutory responsibilities—which could be quite different from those that are the primary concern of a local highway authority.

How would a local highway authority, for example, take account of the conservation of a park's integrity and value as parks and as historic landscapes? All the parks are listed landscapes in the English Heritage Register of Historic Parks and Gardens. As a highway authority, how would they take account of the amenity value of the parks, their accessibility for visitors, the quality of the visitor experience or the effect on wildlife and its habitats?

As regards the particular case mentioned, the order that came in on 10 May reduces the speed limit from 30 miles per hour to 20 miles per hour in Richmond Park. That park is a Grade 1 listed landscape, a national nature reserve, a site of special scientific interest and a candidate special area of conservation. Protection and enhancement of wildlife is a priority and there is a statutory duty to further the conservation and enhancement of the features for which the site has been designated.

I am sorry to have to disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, about this, but it does not mean that we are not committed to consultation. The Secretary of State is already required under the Greater London Authority Act 1999 to consult local boroughs before carrying out any of her functions in relation to the park roads. Similarly, I should point out that there is a reciprocal obligation on local boroughs to consult the Royal Parks, which is not always the case.

We have been consulting over traffic in Richmond Park since 1996 when Dame Jennifer Jenkins's review team held a public consultation on the draft of its report on Richmond and Bushy Parks. In 1999 the Royal Parks presented a report to local authorities, the Traffic Director for London and the Highways Agency proposing a range of options to implement Dame Jennifer's recommendations. After further discussion with the boroughs, the agency consulted the public between October 2000 and February 2001.

The Richmond Park traffic management final report was published on 17 December 2001 and was sent to local boroughs, MPs and Transport for London, and published on the TRP website. In 2002 the agency consulted further on the closure of Robin Hood Gate and, although it did not have to, the proposals contained in the Richmond Park traffic report of December 2001. The results were published in the report, Traffic in Richmond Park: the Way Forward in February 2003 and, again, made available on the website.

I have to say, therefore, that the 20 mph speed limit could be said to have passed the test proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. It has been the subject of two separate consultation exercises. In 2001, 74 per cent of respondents supported the 20 mph speed limit, with 9 per cent against, while in 2003 the figures were 53 per cent in favour and 37 per cent against.

Of course we consider the concerns of local people and we will continue to take them into account. But the Royal Parks are national assets and I believe they should continue to be maintained for the nation by central government.

I was grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for giving us the views of the Friends of Richmond Park. I hope that the House will allow me to give the views of the Friends of the Royal Parks Forum expressed through Kenneth Stern, chairman of the forum and also chairman of the Friends of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. That group states in a letter to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, dated 22 June with a copy to me and no indication that it should be treated as confidential; indeed, I am sure that it is not intended to be treated as confidential: At the half-yearly meeting of the Forum last September we unanimously requested the Chief Executive of the Royal Parks Agency to start the process of applying a 20 mile an hour limit on roads in all Royal Parks for the greater safety of pedestrians and a more peaceful environment. Some of these roads, including North and South Carriage Drives in Hyde Park and the Outer Circle in Regent's Park, are frequently used as race tracks by drivers. The Chief Executive showed sympathy with the demand while pointing out that it would require considerable consultation"— that remark answers itself. We know that the agency is obliged to consult neighbouring authorities in matters which affect them, but apparently Baroness Hanham wants to extend this to give local authorities an absolute veto on Royal Parks proposals. This we find unacceptable. The Royal Parks are well aware of the need to consider the views of local residents, but as an executive agency of a government department, they should not be subject to such a limitation. Furthermore, although the roads in the Royal Parks are generally regarded and used as part of the public road network in London, they are in fact private roads, even such well-known ones as Constitution Hill and The Mall. There is no valid justification for claiming that these roads must have the same speed limit as those under the control of Transport for London or local authorities. Their special environment should be taken into account".

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, can my noble friend explain what the word "private" means in this context?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, they are not public highways under the Highways Act. It is very straightforward.

My noble friend Lord Berkeley, raised a large number of issues which have nothing to do with the speed limit, the subject of the Motion on the Order Paper. Clearly they will be debated at length when the Traffic Management Bill comes before the House.

Let me explain three points to my noble friend. The Royal Parks are opening up new routes to cyclists in conjunction with Westminster Council next year; they have opened already a new cycle route through Kensington Gardens; and the works on Constitution Hill were to improve the cycle route. I hope that he will take these improvements into account when he moves his amendment to the Traffic Management Bill.

As things stand, I believe that we have the right balance of consultation, democracy and accountability. Reducing speeds in Richmond Park and increasing the time it takes through-traffic to cross Richmond Park by four minutes is worth it.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, for their interventions. The noble Baroness did not entirely support the line I am taking, and the noble Lord will obviously pursue these matters further.

It is interesting that the local authorities appear to think that they have not been consulted on this issue, so there must be a question mark against how the consultation was carried out and with whom. I do not live in the area, as the Minister will know, but it was my advice that the consultation on this issue seemed to be extremely limited and that the imposing of the speed limit of 20 miles per hour was carried out well before the order was introduced into the House.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, work did not start on imposing the 20 miles-per-hour speed limit in Richmond Park until 10 May, when the order took effect. I have checked on that matter and those who advise me said that they are shocked at the idea that they should be tempted to do anything illegal.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, I shall accept the Minister's word for that, but it was not the advice I received.

We have aired the issue sufficiently. As I said earlier, I am not going to put the matter to a vote. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at eight minutes past three o'clock.