HC Deb 25 July 2000 vol 354 cc184-92WH 12.28 pm
Mr. David Rendel (Newbury)

I seem to have found my way in around the back this morning, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I apologise for not being here earlier.

I am delighted to have this opportunity to raise a subject that is enormously important to my constituency. I have been applying for an Adjournment debate on this subject for about the past eight weeks and it has taken this long to come up in the ballot. It is therefore more than a little ironic that the debate takes place in the week following the announcement of the comprehensive spending review, which included a lot of new investment in transport over the next 10 years. I am especially pleased to bring the subject to the attention of the House of Commons today because the maintenance of local and rural roads affects every motorist, cyclist, bus passenger and pedestrian in the country. The condition of many such roads is a disgrace and has been so for many years. The discretionary nature of road maintenance spending by local authorities has meant that rural roads have been the victim of cuts, cuts and more cuts in the past two decades. Local authorities should not have to neglect rural roads in order to maintain spending on education or social services.

At the end of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) rightly called 21 years of Conservative spending—[Official Report, 19 July 2000; Vol. 354, c. 369.] rural roads are pitted with potholes. There has been too much emphasis on efficiency savings and not enough on the delivery of a vital public service.

In May, we carried out a survey of local residents in the areas around the villages of Inkpen and Kintbury in my constituency. The survey uncovered telling remarks on the state of an all too typical rural road to the west of Newbury. The following three quotations are taken from the responses to that survey. They say: The whole stretch is far worse than it has ever been. I travel in Asia extensively and these roads are far worse than third world countries. My eldest daughter left for New Zealand in 1974 and twenty years later returned to find this road even worse than when she left. She is returning again in May 2000 and should feel right at home, as nothing has changed in nearly thirty years. That is merely an illustrative selection from a survey of one small council ward. Sadly, the situation is mirrored across the country. Frankly, people are fed up.

One of the most ludicrous results of the under-funding of the past 20 years is the system of rationing repairs that local authorities have been forced to use. Immediate action will be taken only if a pothole is at least 20 mm deep and 300 mm in diameter. For insurers to meet claims by motorists against local authorities, the pothole must be 40 mm deep. It is simply not good enough that potholes should be left unattended because they are classified as "normal"—less deep than the statutory level.

In my constituency and across the country, rural roads play a crucial role in the everyday life of the community. Commuters use them increasingly to get to and from work as traffic increases on the major arterial roads. They are vital lifelines for young mothers and the elderly, and they are enjoyed by visitors and cyclists at weekends.

The Government's 10-year transport plan lays down proposals to improve public transport and to encourage people to use local bus services. However, with many rural roads in disrepair, both the safety and comfort of buses travelling along them is at risk. I and my party welcome the promised extra investment in public transport. Nevertheless, the Government must ensure that necessary improvements to the infrastructure are made before they try to develop a series of new bus routes, the usefulness of which will be hugely diminished by a quickly deteriorating rural road network. Likewise, if the Government are to insist on raising fuel prices still higher, is it not reasonable for the people of Britain to expect them in return to fix the many potholes that riddle our local roads?

Although I welcome the extra money that the Secretary of State has allocated to deal with the appalling state of rural roads, I am not sure that it will be sufficient or that it has come soon enough. It is a start, but why could the start not have been made three years ago? When the Government came to power in May 1997, we were all led to believe that things would change. As far as rural roads are concerned, we might have been told that things could only get better but, sadly, things have only got worse.

For 18 years, the Tories forced local authorities to abandon the proper upkeep of their rural roads. However, the rural road network is as important to its users as is the motorway network to those who use motorways. The extra funding that the Government now promise will, on their own admission, take years to make a real difference.

Of course, I welcome the Government's £30 billion programme to eliminate the backlog in local road and bridge maintenance. However, I am concerned that the money is due to be spread over 10 years, and that even the deterioration in local road conditions will not be halted until 2004. Can the Minister tell me how much of the £30 billion will be spent on bridge strengthening and lighting improvements, and how much will be left for the repair of rural roads?

In the section on local transport in the 10-year transport plan, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions acknowledges the fact that under-investment has led to a situation whereby rural roads are still disintegrating at an alarming rate. It states: The condition of our roads is a matter of concern … Due to past under investment, local roads are now in their worst condition for thirty years, with a backlog of maintenance estimated at several billion pounds and their condition is still declining. This means that substantial sums are being wasted as roads are allowed to deteriorate to the point where more extensive, costly and disruptive repairs are required. If only the same funding had been made available in 1997 or 1998, we could have halted any further deterioration by the end of this year or 2001. That in turn would have meant that the backlog could have been addressed much earlier.

I am sure that a brief survey of local authorities, or of even the average person in the street, would have told the Government in 1997 that the rural road network desperately needed money, at least to halt the deterioration. I understand the Chancellor's arguments that the country's finances needed to be balanced in order to provide for future investment. However, it is a false economy to save money to begin with, only to be faced with a larger bill over the next decade. That is the economics of the madhouse.

The Government are very proud of their "spend to save" special grant programme for local authorities. It is desperately sad that they did not see the need to "spend to save" on rural road maintenance in their first three years in office.

In my constituency, West Berkshire council appears to have in place plans to deal with rural road maintenance. However, funding has repeatedly been lacking for them to tackle the problems of all roads within the rural network. In a letter to a concerned constituent in May this year, the chief executive of West Berkshire council attempted to explain the problems that it faces in maintaining its many rural roads. She wrote: The maintenance of rural unclassified roads is actually a national issue and not just one particular to West Berkshire. We are very keen to improve the condition of our rural roads, but of course this has to be done within a limited budget. The need to establish a works programme and consequently a treatment regime, which will bring about such an improvement is fundamental in delivering a best value service. Once potholes have been reported, temporary repairs are first carried out to make the roads safe and these sites are then added to an ongoing permanent patching programme. By adopting new treatment methods and materials I am hopeful that this will bring about an improvement to the road network, but with almost 500km of rural unclassified roads in Berkshire it will be a slow process.

The chief executive's letter was in response to an infuriated local resident whose car had been damaged in an accident caused by a pothole. Like many such car drivers, she was furious to find that she could get no recompense from the council or its insurers for the damage that was done. The justification for that was explained in a letter from the insurers, which stated: The Council, as Highways Authority, has a duty to maintain the highway under Section 41 of the Highways Act 1980. This duty does not, however, place upon the Highways Authority a strict legal liability to anyone who may have an accident whilst using the highway. For a claim to succeed, a claimant must first prove that the defect which was the cause of the incident was of such a dimension to make it "dangerous and actionable". Many highways claims have come before the Courts in the past and the Courts have stated that the highway cannot be expected to be maintained to the levels of a bowling green and that some unevenness must be expected. In respect of pavements, claims involving tripping edges of up to 1 inch have been found to be within the "normal expectation" limit and the claims have failed. In the case of Mills v. Barnsley MBC (1992) the Court of Appeal held in favour of the Council in respect of a defect, which was a hole in the pavement 2 inches across, and 1.25 inches deep. Where incidents have occurred within the roadway, the level of normal expectation has been generally higher with cases involving deep defects up to 1.5 inches to 2 inches failing. In respect of your constituent's claim, after the incident the defect was specifically measured at 700 mm x 35 mm x 32 mm (just over 1.25 inches deep). I therefore consider that this size of defect is within what would be deemed "normal expectations" and the claim would therefore fail. In addition, under Section 58 of the Highways Act 1980, the Highways Authority is provided with a statutory defence to claims if it has in place a reasonable system of inspection and maintenance. I can confirm that the road in question is subject to a 3 monthly inspection system. The area was last inspected on 7 January 2000. At that time, the defect was observed and recorded. It was not marked out for remedial action because of its depth, which is below the Council's threshold for repair of 40 mm. The recording, however, would have meant that it would have been re-checked at the time of the next inspection. I also feel, therefore, that the statutory defence would also apply to this claim.

To back up their position, the insurers included with their letter a sheaf of papers that the council had sent them to demonstrate how effectively it was monitoring the state of the road concerned. I have the file here. It contains maps, work sheets, plans of where all the potholes are, their depths, when they are due to be repaired, and numerous other details. One cannot help feeling that, if the council were not forced to spend quite so much time defending itself against damages claims, it could provide more funds for repairing roads. Once again, this is a vicious circle. The worse the roads become, the more claims are made. The more resources are used to defend the council against the claims, the less money is left to repair the roads, and the worse the roads become.

The issue of rural roads is important for many people. I am glad, therefore, that the Government have now recognised that and are at last attempting to address what is fast becoming an impossible situation. I remain convinced, however, that it was unnecessary to wait three years until the increase in funding was announced. A great deal of time has been lost, and the lives of rural road users have been made increasingly difficult.

Moreover, far more funding will now be required to repair the damage that has been done than would have been needed if rural roads had been properly maintained in the first place. However, let me be fair to the Government. The main cause of the problem has been the gross underfunding of the rural road network by the previous Conservative Governments during the 18 years in which they were in power. The underfunding by this Government over the past three years has simply exacerbated an already appalling problem. The rise in funding that has now been announced is very welcome. I only hope that it has not come too late to rectify the rapidly deteriorating network left by 18 years of Tory under-investment.

12.43 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill)

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) on his success in securing this debate. Secondly, I express my gratitude to him for his courtesy in providing my office with advance notice of the key issues that he wished to raise. He has crowned his success in securing the debate by choosing a most important subject at what is an appropriate time for several reasons.

I listened carefully to the points that the hon. Gentleman raised, and I agree with many of them. Rural roads are in a poor condition; there are too many potholes and much more investment is needed for their proper maintenance. However, there is very good news. We have assessed the problem carefully, with the valuable assistance of the Local Government Association and the Highways Agency, and we are now going to stop the deterioration, clear the backlogs and restore rural roads—and all other local roads—to optimum condition over the next 10 years.

Through the spending review and the 10-year transport plan, we shall provide the considerable resources—more than £31 billion—that are necessary. In addition, we are providing managerial and technical guidance to help local authorities use those resources in the most efficient and economic way.

When we took office, we inherited a transport system that was fragmented and suffering from years of under-investment. We are determined to turn that situation completely around. Last week, we announced plans for massive new investment in transport, which will implement the vision in our White Paper and help the country's future prosperity. "Transport 2010: The 10 Year Plan" addresses the current problems of congestion, pollution and inadequate public transport, and shows how we intend to create an integrated transport system that is fit for the new century.

Roads will play a vital part in that 10-year plan. There are 284,000 km of roads in this country, of which half—142,000 km, or nearly 90,000 miles—are in rural areas. Rural roads are vital to the areas that they serve, because they provide the major—and, often, the only—infrastructure for private and commercial travel, and public transport. More so than urban roads, they knit together communities and give access to health, education, shopping, entertainment and social facilities, as well as linking people with employment and business opportunities. This Government recognise the importance of roads, but they need to be maintained well if they are to provide a good service for pedestrians, cyclists and bus users, as well as motorists. In rural areas, they must also provide a service for agriculture and equestrians.

In terms of traffic importance, strategic national roads are at the top of the road hierarchy. The Highways Agency has confirmed that there is no maintenance backlog on trunk roads and motorways, and its current funding allows the right treatment to be carried out at the right time, consistent with minimum whole-life costs. Unfortunately, the picture is not so rosy on local roads. Despite our having reversed the local maintenance expenditure cuts that the previous Government made in the mid 1990s, the 1999 national roads maintenance conditions survey showed that local roads are in their worst condition since the survey began in 1977. Although the NRMCS showed some welcome improvements in the condition of rural principal and classified roads, the condition of rural unclassified roads has declined since the previous year's survey.

In rural and urban areas, there are far too many potholes, particularly on unclassified roads. Potholes not only show that roads are breaking up; they are also dangerous and damaging to pedestrians, cyclists and motorists. Unfortunately, they are not the only problem. The bridge-strengthening programme to accommodate 40-tonne lorries needs to be completed, and there is a considerable backlog of other bridge structural maintenance work. If that is not tackled, even more expensive repairs will become necessary. In hillier parts of the country, many retaining walls need strengthening and treatment. Lastly, but by no means least, there is a considerable backlog of life-expired street lighting columns that need replacement. More than a quarter of some 5 million columns in England are more than 30 years old.

Drastic action is needed, and we are taking drastic action. We are implementing a step change in resources to stop deterioration and eliminate backlogs. In the 10-year period, we are increasing funding for local road maintenance by 40 per cent. in cash—£9 billion—to £31 billion. Compared to current spending levels, there will be an extra £1 billion in cash in the first three years. This is truly "spend to save".

As has been pointed out, the under-funding of road maintenance wastes money, because more expensive repairs become necessary in the long run. Hon. Members will appreciate that the legacy of years of under-funding cannot be put right overnight. In the spending review, we have worked closely with the Local Government Association to calculate the resources and time necessary to carry out the work. We have had to bear in mind the need for local authorities and the maintenance industry to make proper staffing and resource plans to accommodate the increased funding.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether we know how much of the funding will be used in the maintenance of rural roads. We do not, but I expect that local authorities will use an appropriate proportion on rural roads. The £31 billion programme will, first, halt the deterioration in the condition of local roads by 2004; that is an important commitment. Secondly, it will eliminate the backlog in carriageway and footway maintenance within 10 years. Thirdly, it will complete the programme of bridge strengthening to accommodate 40-tonne lorries within six to seven years. Fourthly, it will tackle the backlog in essential structural maintenance to bridges in nine years. Finally, it will clear the street lighting backlog in 10 years.

Mr. Rendel

If the Minister knows so accurately how long it will take to carry out the parts of the programme, he must have some idea of the amount of money that will be spent on each part.

Mr. Hill

As I said earlier, we are still working on that. We hope to make more precise announcements in due course.

We intend to see that the money is spent well. The performance of local highway authorities will be monitored using best value indicators. The current indicators measure the condition of principal and other classified road carriageways, the cost of principal road maintenance against vehicle mileage, the time taken to repair street lights and the time taken to rectify serious road defects. We shall refine and extend those indicators, and future developments may include regular compulsory visual surveys of the condition of all local roads and consistent reporting on the conditions of bridges. We shall also monitor closely the reports that local authorities are required to make on the delivery of their local transport plans. Future funding allocations for local transport plans will depend, in part, on the progress that they make.

We were impressed by the effort that local authorities put into their draft local transport plans last year. The discipline of having to plan five years ahead and merge maintenance planning with other transport objectives produced, in most cases, a coherent and considered assessment of needs and priorities. We could not fund the bids in full last year, but the increased resources that are now available will allow us to satisfy needs more closely in the coming round. Local transport plans represent a useful way in which authorities can bring to our attention maintenance needs that are not being addressed. It was through last year's plans that we were made aware of the problem with retaining walls and the extent of the backlog on street lighting. Retaining walls have been taken into consideration in the current transport plan round, and we are still considering the best way to feed extra money for street lighting into local authority funding mechanisms.

To help local authorities to improve the management of highway maintenance, we are working with the Local Government Association and others to produce a new code of good practice. It will be available next spring and will give the latest guidance on managing the maintenance of carriageways and footways. The code will concentrate on the service to the road user, rather than specifying the input, as the present code does.

We have also provided the major part of the funding for the UK pavement management system. It is a computerised system, which allows for the collection of highway condition data and the creation of a database, analysis of the data to identify priorities for treatment and assessments of the treatments needed. It helps highway authorities to plan maintenance in the most efficient and cost-effective way. Future development of the system will allow for analysis of condition trends and the projection of condition deterioration over five years, so that the most economic treatments can be calculated and the financial consequences of not carrying out the treatments quantified.

We have incorporated the UKPMS visual condition surveys into the best value indicators for maintenance, and we are encouraging local authorities to adopt the system. Using UKPMS data for the national road maintenance condition survey could also be a good way to avoid the duplication of surveys and obtain more comprehensive data, to give us a better idea of national road condition trends and maintenance needs. Looking further ahead, machine surveys of local roads may provide quicker and more accurate data collection within a few years. The Highways Agency has done much work in that area and is starting to use machine surveys routinely.

I must not leave local road maintenance without saying a few words about procurement. The abolition of compulsory competitive tendering and the introduction of best value will encourage local authorities to challenge their preconceptions about maintenance procurement and to seek more innovative and better ways of getting the work done. We are already seeing the beneficial effects of that with several local authorities achieving more flexible and better arrangements with the private sector. The partnerships that are coming about are particularly interesting.

Additionally, the opportunities presented by the private finance initiative in giving local authorities a good deal on maintenance are becoming more apparent. We have already approved three street lighting projects in Brent, Staffordshire and Walsall, and we are considering three more business cases. Street lighting PFI projects involve a private sector contractor taking over the provision of highway lighting for a period of 25 years, receiving an agreed unitary payment depending on performance. The contractor normally undertakes to replace life-expired columns within five years and that capital work will be supported by central Government in the form of PFI credits. We approve those projects only if the PFI route can be shown to provide better value for money. That has usually been the case with the projects that we have examined so far, mainly due to the private sector's greater scope to innovate and gain efficiencies in procurement and the use of personnel.

We are also considering an application for PFI credit support from Portsmouth for an innovative project in which the private sector will carry out all maintenance on the city's principal roads for 25 years and provide certain services, including street lighting, over the whole road network.

I hope that I have been able to reassure the hon. Member for Newbury that our actions and funding will restore local rural roads to a condition in which they can be maintained at minimum whole-life cost and contribute fully to the better transport system that rural areas need and deserve.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to One o'clock.