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Roads (Kirklees)

Volume 178: debated on Friday 12 October 1990

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Wood.]

11.31 pm

I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for giving me this opportunity to raise matters concerning roads in Kirklees, which are of great importance to my constituents. I am also most grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for Aviation and Shipping for being with us at this late hour—although it is not quite as late as he and I feared earlier in the evening.

The issues that I shall be raising in the debate are not great matters of state, but bread-and-butter matters affecting the ordinary day-to-day living of just about everybody in my constituency, and within Kirklees, who drives a motor vehicle.

Visitors coming to Kirklees and residents returning are made only too well aware of when they have entered our district. It is not just the reassuring signs which tell them that they have entered a nuclear-free zone, but rather the state of the roads which become markedly worse.

I have received a regular flow of complaints from constituents about the state of the roads in Kirklees. I can confirm from my own experience of driving round the constituency that they leave an awful lot to be desired. It is fair to say that the state of the roads in Kirklees is an absolute disgrace.

All too often when complaints are made about the state of local services, the parrot cry is, "We need more money." My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that I do not intend to go down that road this evening.

Kirklees council budgeted for spending more than £10 million on road maintenance last year, although it is my understanding that about £800,000 of that budget has not been spent. That seems a little surprising. Lack of resources is not the root cause of the problems that I have outlined. According to information provided to me by the highways department of Kirklees council, the utility companies create on average about 29,000 holes or openings in the roads in Kirklees every year. The problem lies in the interaction between Kirklees council and the utility companies.

When I first voiced concern in the local press about all the potholes, local Labour councillors, including the leader of the council, tried to put all the blame on the utility companies, and suggested that there was lack of funding to carry out proper repairs. Both claims fall short of the mark. Local authorities have the power now to carry out the permanent reinstatement of the initial temporary reinstatements carried out by the utility companies when they first fill in the hole that they have dug.

Councils have a choice. Either they can require the utility companies to carry out the permanent reinstatement work, or they can do the work themselves. Kirklees council—like, I believe, many other councils—has elected to carry out the permanent reinstatement work itself. The council therefore has the power to ensure that potholes are properly and efficiently repaired. It also has the power to charge the costs of the work direct to the utility companies. That ensures that local community charge payers do not have to bear the cost.

Regrettably, it appears that Kirklees council is not carrying out that function properly. Certainly it is the view of the Mirfield road safety committee—Mirfield is in Kirklees but just outside my constituency—that the council carries out very little reinstatement work. Earlier this year I raised with the highways department the poor quality of two roads in the village of Slaithwaite in my constituency. It told me that the permanent reinstatement work had been carried out. I discovered later that it had not been carried out, which suggests some confusion and perhaps a lack of co-ordination.

My hon. Friend is dealing with issues that are of the greatest importance. It is typical of my hon. Friend's devotion to constituency issues that he is doing so. I want him to understand, however, that the problems that he raises are shared by all districts in west Yorkshire. Both my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope) and I agree that the great problem of lack of co-ordination over reinstatement must be properly addressed and that local authorities are reneging on their civic duty properly to maintain roads.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments. Some people in Kirklees imagine that their roads are the worst in the country, but there appear to be problems in other parts of Yorkshire. I am grateful, too, for my hon. Friend's kind comments about my work as a constituency Member of Parliament. I have tried to follow the excellent example that he set in his constituency.

My constituents are fed up with the state of their roads. I believe that the time has come for the Government to grasp this nettle. Utility companies must be made properly responsible and accountable to the local highways department for the work that they carry out. Highways departments must ensure that the state of roads generally is kept at a high level.

The Horne report was published in 1985. Professor Horne and his team were asked to review the working of the Public Utilities Street Works Act 1950 to see whether the law needed to be updated and clarified. As the Minister knows, the Horne committee made a number of recommendations. I take this opportunity to urge my hon. Friend to ensure that legislation is brought before the House in the next Session of Parliament to implement the recommendations of the Horne report. The Horne report recommended that the responsibility for reinstating roads should be placed fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the utility companies. Experience in Kirklees proves—fairly conclusively, I think—that the current system is not working. Therefore, I support such a move.

Clearly, however, we should have to ensure that a cast-iron system was established that did not allow the utility companies to evade their responsibilities. Strict national standards would have to be put in place to cover the quality of the work, specifications and workmanship and the time scale within which the reinstatement work must be carried out.

There are two other vital factors. There is nothing more frustrating than to see a new surface put down only to have a utility company come along a few months or even a few weeks later and dig it up again. I believe that an effective—probably computerised—system of notification by the utility companies about future excavations is essential. The highways authorities should be given the rights of inspection over all the work carried out by the utility companies.

It is vital to have a proper system of monitoring and of penalties for failure to carry out proper reinstatement. On the apportioning of costs, I see no reason why community charge payers should have to bear the burden of the excavations carried out by the utility companies. After all, the excavations are done to help the customers of the utility companies. Therefore, it is right that the customers should bear the cost of such work.

I recently met some people who work for British Gas, one of the utility companies that often digs up our roads. They made it clear to me that British Gas and the other utility companies are keen that all recommendations are implemented into law so that a proper system can be introduced. They believe that the utility companies are the most appropriate bodies to carry out that work.

I reiterate my strong hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will win his and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's battle to obtain legislative time for a transport Bill next Session. An editorial in my local newspaper, theHuddersfield Daily Examiner, suggested recently that I will need all the luck I can get if anything is to be done about the roads in Kirklees. It is not luck I need but legislation.

The appalling potholes that I mentioned present a serious danger to drivers, particularly drivers of motor cycles. I understand that during 1989 60 accidents, some more serious than others, were caused by vehicles going into potholes. It is difficult for drivers to obtain proper compensation for personal injuries suffered or for damage to vehicles. I wonder whether my hon. Friend the Minister will look at that part of the law to see whether it needs to be tightened up.

Finally, may I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to look at the problem of unadopted roads? Within Kirklees there are hundreds of unadopted roads. That means that local residents have to maintain them and some of them are in an appalling state. In many cases, the local residents cannot afford to carry out proper repairs. I recently visited Coldwell street in Linthwaite which has had particular problems that have been exacerbated by large lorries delivering to a supermarket. Whether a small local road is adopted or unadopted is simply an accident of history. However, residents who find themselves in that position still have to pay the same community charge as everybody else in the area and many of them consider that to be unfair. Currently, Kirklees council will adopt a road only if it is up to a certain standard. I suggest that a system should be put in place to ensure that councils adopt a certain number of roads each year. Obviously, the number would depend on local circumstances.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for staying up till this late hour to answer the debate, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope) for being here with us. He is an assiduous attender in the House. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to give me some positive answers to some of the issues that I have raised. Many of my constituents are fed up with the state of the roads in Kirklees, and my hon. Friend the Minister is the best hope that I have for getting something done about it.

Perhaps I should make it clear that it is not in order for hon. Members to ask for legislation during an Adjournment debate. I am satisfied, however, that the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) was asking the Government to act, which is perfectly in order.

11.44 pm

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) on drawing attention to the problem affecting his constituents. I know what a problem it is for him; he has told my colleagues and me many times about it, and I hope that—while remaining mindful of the caution that you have just given us, Mr. Deputy Speaker—I can go some way towards explaining what can be done.

Kirklees is a metropolitan district in the west Yorkshire conurbation. Two of the region's most important motorways—the M1 and M62—pass close to its boundaries, giving Kirklees excellent road links to the south, eastwards to the Humber ports and the Al and westwards over the Pennines to Manchester and Merseyside. Improvement of the M62 has already begun, and climbing lanes have already been provided on some of the more difficult gradients. The length within Kirklees was completed in 1988 at a cost of £3 million.

The White Paper "Roads for Prosperity", published last year, announced proposals to widen the 17 miles of the M62 over the Pennines between junctions 18 and 24 from dual three-lane to dual four-lane at a cost of £125 million, and proposals to create a new 12-mile dual-carriageway trunk road across Kirklees district, linking the M1 to the M62 at a cost of £54 million. By trunking the M606 local authority motorway from the M62 into Bradford in 1989, we were able to relieve Kirklees council of the financial responsibility for the one mile of the M606 within the district.

The Government have also been supporting the improvement of local authority roads in the district. As part of our "action for cities" initiative, Kirklees has two inner-city target areas. I am pleased to see that Kirklees council and private developers in the area have been making good use of the grants that the Department of Transport offers under section 13 of the Industrial Development Act 1982. Those 30 per cent. grants are available in assisted areas such as the northern end of the district, adjacent to the M62 junctions 26 and 27, which lie within the Bradford travel-to-work area. In recent years, IDA grants in Kirklees have supported roadwork schemes costing £1·5 million, helping industrial development and enabling the creation of 2,350 new jobs.

The main source of Government support for the improvement of local authority roads is the transport supplementary grant. It is designed to recognise that many local authority roads are also roads of more than local importance, complementing the national road network. TSG is a 50 per cent. grant towards programmes of expenditure on accepted schemes. The other 50 per cent. is supported through the credit-approval system, which attracts extra revenue support grant, enabling local authorities to build accepted schemes at virtually no cost to their community charge payers. TSG settlements are announced annually, and local authority schemes must compete for priority for the funds available.

In the case of Kirklees, only two major schemes have been put forward for TSG support in transport policy and programme bids since Kirklees council became a highway authority in 1986, when the metropolitan county councils were abolished. The Dewsbury ring road, already under construction in 1986, cost just over £7 million. It was supported by TSG, and was completed in 1987. Mold Green relief road was proposed by Kirklees council. It was accepted for TSG and completed in 1989 at a cost of £3·1 million.

Kirklees' transport policy and programme for 1991–92 includes a bid for TSG support for a large reconstruction scheme costing £1·25 million in Ravensthorpe, Dewsbury. A decision on whether the scheme will be accepted for TSG will be announced towards the end of 1990.

I should make it clear that Government support for improvement schemes on local roads depends on local authorities' coming forward with schemes in the TPPs, commanding priority for TSG. Until Kirklees comes forward with a bigger programme of schemes, it cannot expect to increase its portion of support through TSG.

Expenditure on routine highway maintenance is not eligible for TSG, but is covered in the standard spending assessment calculations for RSG, where we prefer to give the local authorities a reasonably free hand to sort out their own priorities.

My hon. Friend drew attention to the particular problems of unadopted roads. I understand that he recently received a letter from my hon. Friend the Minister for Roads and Traffic explaining the position on that issue, and there is nothing that I can usefully add at this stage.

As my hon. Friend clearly illustrated tonight, the work of the public utilities has a major effect on the condition of roads. Electricity, gas, water and telecommunications companies enjoy statutory rights to break open streets to lay and maintain their apparatus. In built-up urban areas such as Kirklees, where demand for utility services is greatest and road traffic is heaviest, conflicts of interest frequently arise.

I agree with my hon. Friend that a complete overhaul of the legislation governing utility street works is required if there is to be a real and lasting improvement. While I cannot anticipate what will appear in the forthcoming Queen's Speech, I assure my hon. Friend that the Government are committed to bringing forward legislation to reform the Public Utilities Street Works Act 1950—known as PUSWA—at the earliest opportunity. I hope that theHuddersfield Examiner will, rightly, give credit and praise when that Bill comes forward.

There are a number of serious shortcomings in the present law on utility works. One example is the requirement to serve notices in writing on all the authorities involved before starting works. That results in unnecessary bureaucracy, with some 4 million holes each year subject to the requirements of the 1950 Act.

The paper-based system fails to distinguish the important advance notifications from the routine. There are 18 different forms of statutory notice for use by the utilities, and a further 21 for use by other authorities. The highway authority has little opportunity to make adequate arrangements for traffic management, still less to co-ordinate works between various utilities. The possibilities for simplification and efficiency gains offered by information technology are ruled out by the statutory requirements for paper notices.

Another example of the shortcomings of the present framework is the generally unsatisfactory state of reinstatement of roads following excavation work by utilities. The 1950 Act allows highway authorities to elect to do the permanent reinstatement of the upper levels of the roads themselves at the utility's expense. There is no time limit laid down for the highway authority to carry out the reinstatement in those cases. As a result, temporary reinstatements done by utilities are often left for far too long in a totally unsatisfactory condition, and in those cases where the utility is allowed to do the permanent reinstatement itself there is a wide variety of permitted standards and a weak system of enforcement. All that means too many reinstatements are left in a poor condition, and highway authorities have to spend more on maintenance in the long run.

Recognising problems such as those, in 1984 my right hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker), the then Minister of State, Department of Transport, invited Professor Horne to chair a committee to review all aspects of the 1950 Act. Its report, "Roads and the utilities", published in November 1985, provided a comprehensive review and a series of recommendations for action that commanded a wide degree of support.

The Government published their formal response to the report in 1986, accepting the main recommendations. I hope that reassures my hon. Friend that we take such issues seriously. Those recommendations were, first, that the primary responsibility for carrying out reinstatements following street works by utilities should be placed on the utilities themselves. Local authorities and their direct labour organisations would be allowed to tender for such work if they wished, but would no longer have the statutory right to elect to do the permanent reinstatement themselves. In future, the responsibility and liability for reinstatements will clearly rest with the utilities. That should go a long way towards meeting the concerns about liability in the case of accidents that my hon. Friend mentioned. Members of the public trying to find out who is responsible for a particular pothole will no longer have to suffer being passed back and forth between utility and highway authority

The second main recommendation was that there should he new performance standards for reinstatements with better specifications for materials and workmanship, backed up by a system of training and certification of workmen and their supervisors. There should also be improvements in the procedures for the service of notices, inspections, traffic management, and safeguarding road users.

In accepting those main recommendations of the Horne report, the Government recognised that primary legislation would be required to implement them. At the same time, they urged local authorities and the utilities to embark on the detailed technical work required to prepare the ground. The street works advisory committee was established to give the Secretary of State for Transport direct access to the best advice available. That committee has been invaluable in the formulation of detailed proposals for legislation, which were included in a consultation paper issued by the Department of Transport last year.

Over the past three years, a considerable effort has been made by representatives of local authorities and utilities in association with Department of Transport officials to draw up the various codes of practice which will underpin the proposed new arrangements. Those involved have produced draft codes of practice on matters such as the specification for reinstatements, notice and inspection procedures, requirements for training and certification of workmen and the arrangements for diverting utility apparatus during road schemes.

My hon. Friend may be interested to know that the new specification for reinstatements that is being drawn up will require utilities to guarantee the performance of the repair for a fixed period. A demanding standard will be set to prevent uneven and dangerous road surfaces. The prescribed standard will have to be met whether the reinstatement is temporary or permanent. The needs of more vulnerable road users, including pedestrians and cyclists, will be taken into account when the standards are set. Each utility's performance will be closely monitored through a system of highway authority inspections, and there will be penalties for failure to meet the required level.

All that important preparatory work should ensure that the implementation of the new arrangements can be done more effectively and quickly once a new legislative framework is in place.

There is a need to reduce traffic obstruction and delay caused by utility street works. The Horne report argued the case for improved co-ordination of road works and better traffic management during the execution of works. I take my hon. Friend's point that there is nothing worse than a new road being laid and someone digging it up the next day. The Government fully accept the importance of this aspect and have indeed gone further than Horne in their proposals to protect the interests of road users, whether they be on wheels or on foot. It is proposed that the highway authority will be placed under a duty to co-ordinate all excavations in the highway, including its own, with a view to minimising the disruption to road users. There will be a new management tool to aid co-ordination in the form of a computerised street works register. I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that the Department of Transport is making available funding for the design and development of the register.

In future, the highway authority will be empowered to designate as "traffic sensitive" those streets where works could cause great disruption to road users. On such streets, utilities will be required to consult the highway authority in advance before starting works. Where the highway authority is satisfied that works may cause serious disruption to traffic, it will have power to direct the utility on the times of working. However, of course, special arrangements will be made for genuine emergency works.

Utility street works and building works undoubtedly impose costly delays on trafffic. Although much of this disruption is unavoidable, and as customers of the utilities we often benefit from the work which causes it, unnecessarily long or frequent disruption to road users can and must be avoided. For that reason, we came forward with a further proposal last autumn to take a power which would enable my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to require highway authorities to charge the promoters of works and their contractors to minimise disruption and delay in the most traffic-sensitive areas.

We shall continue to encourage the use of so-called trenchless methods of construction and maintenance. Various techniques are now available to bore under roads with far less disruption to traffic and damage to the road surface than conventional trenching methods. As the technology becomes more reliable and cost-effective, we may expect to see it increasingly preferred by the utilities.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important matter. He was joined in his comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw), and my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope) was present throughout the debate. I realise what an important subject this is to the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley. He is certainly never backward in coming forward and making strong representations to the Government about what most affects his constituents. I hope that I have been able to outline the Government's thinking and what action is necessary.

I hope that we can act soon and that some of theproblems to which my hon. Friend referred, which have caused much annoyance to his constituents and to those of other hon. Members, can be put right and that we can achieve a better system of maintaining and fixing our roads when they are dug up by the utilities.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twelve o'clock.