Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr. Watts.)
I am most grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to Mr. Speaker for giving me permission to hold this debate, which is on the difficulty that local authorities face in adopting roads in new residential developments. That is a very big issue for my constituency, but in researching the subject on behalf of my constituents, I have discovered that it is a big issue across the country. That is why I want to draw it to the Minister’s attention.
The Government define an adopted road as a road maintainable at public expense, but the problem is that, in taking over roads into which taxpayers’ money quite rightly is to be put, local authorities find it very difficult to get building developers to get the roads up to the requisite standard before the local authorities take the roads into public ownership.
This is not a party political issue; it is an issue of major concern not only to my constituents but to constituents around the country who live on new residential estates. The Government are keen to see many more residential estates being built around the country, not least in the growth areas coming out of London, including the one in which the Kettering constituency is located. Kettering’s housing numbers are due to increase from 36,000 at present to 49,100 by 2021—an increase of one third—so many thousands of my constituents are or will be living on new residential estates, and will therefore be affected by what I think is a loophole in the legislation—the Highways Act 1980.
That loophole means, in effect, that there will be hundreds of thousands of residents across the country living on new housing estates whose houses will be located on roads that will have substandard pavements, highways and lighting for many years to come. The mechanism in the Highways Act for roads to be improved to a suitable standard on new residential estates is section 38. Developers are encouraged to enter into a section 38 agreement with the appropriate highways authority which, for constituencies such as mine in the shires, would be the local county council.
However, there does not seem to be any legal requirement for the developers to enter into such a section 38 agreement to have the roads adopted. Even if they do enter into a section 38 agreement with the local authority, local authorities are not able, without the developer’s consent, to access the bonded funds that the developers lodge with the local county council. So unless a developer goes bust, there is very little the local highways authority can do to pressurise the developer into improving the standard of the roads.
The other surprising thing I found out in my research for this debate is that the Department for Transport does not know the extent of the problem. In a parliamentary answer to me on 22 October the Minister stated:
“The Department for Transport has no information on the adoption of streets in new developments by local highway authorities and has made no estimate of the time authorities take to do so.”—[Official Report, 22 October 2009; Vol. 497, c. 1570W.]
The most recent note from the House of Commons Library on the subject says:
“A Department of Transport survey in 1972 found that there were then approximately 40,000 unadopted roads in England and Wales, making up some 4,000 miles of road. No later survey has been undertaken but the figure is thought not to have changed much. It was estimated in 2006 that it would cost £3 billion to make these roads up to an adoptable standard.”
If nothing else comes from the debate tonight, I very much hope that the Department for Transport will at least try to ascertain the real extent of the problem, which surely must get worse as more houses are built throughout the country.
I see that some Labour Members are present to listen to the debate. If at any point they wish to highlight local examples of the difficulties that they have had with unadopted roads, I shall be delighted to take interventions.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is one of my parliamentary neighbours. The issue that he is highlighting is of great concern to my constituents too, in the new development at Bridleways. In various other streets, particularly Gorse close and Kingsthorpe, we have seen the results of a road not being brought up to adoptable standard. Thirty years or so down the line, people are living in real difficulties because of the inadequate roads and subsidence and drainage problems.
I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for that helpful intervention; if she wishes to come back to me at another point, she will be welcome to do so. The estate that she highlights is an important example of how the process is going wrong. There has been extensive coverage of this in the distinguished local newspaper, the Northampton Chronicle and Echo. I have spoken to Councillor David Mackintosh, who represents Ecton Brook ward and, like the hon. Lady, has been heavily involved in the issue. I am sure she will correct me if I get this wrong, but I think that essentially the estate in her constituency comprises some 100 homes, many of which are designated for social housing but which stand empty because of a dispute involving the developers, the housing association and the county council. I understand that there has not been a handover from the developer, McCann Homes, to Genesis Homes, which is the housing association involved. For understandable reasons, Genesis Homes and the county council do not want to take responsibility for the roads on the estate because they are not of a suitable standard.
It is a bit more complicated than that. The borough council is also involved because it does not want dustcarts to go down the roads. The upshot of all this is that several social housing tenants have been left homeless. One of them has been homeless for 18 months and living on a caravan site because she cannot get into her home as the roads have not been adopted.
I thank the hon. Lady. The point about social housing tenants is that if they find alternative permanent accommodation before they are allocated their social housing tenancy, it will not be allocated to them because they will be deemed not to be homeless.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate. I should declare that I was employed for many happy years by Genesis Homes housing association under its previous name. I understand that it is an extremely responsible housing association and registered social landlord.
In the urban context, we frequently face a similar problem whereby a developer will build on an unadopted road and provide the basic sewerage and power connections but not maintenance or street lighting. There appears at the present time to be no legal requirement for potential purchasers to be told that they are buying a house in a road that is not adopted by the local authority. Will he consider that in the course of his speech?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that extremely pertinent point. Under the legislation, the frontagers on these roads can be held liable for the costs of bringing the roads, pavements and street lighting up to an adoptable standard. They should be advised of those obligations by their solicitor when they undertake their house purchase, but I am not convinced that that always happens. I hope that the Minister will take that point away and discuss it with his relevant colleague in, I guess, the Department for Communities and Local Government, or perhaps the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, because it is important that potential homeowners are advised of their potential liability in this respect. Although the point that the hon. Gentleman makes is a matter of concern in Kettering, the vast majority of my constituents who are affected by this issue live on new estates where the developer is supposed to take responsibility for getting the roads, pavements and street lights up to an adoptable standard but is not doing so.
The hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) made an extremely good point about borough council refuse services. Borough and district councils will become involved in that issue through their responsibilities as planning authorities in granting planning permission—although I guess that in her case many of those responsibilities are now devolved to the West Northamptonshire Development Corporation—as well as in relation to the provision of waste collection services. If a road is not adopted to a suitable standard, there is an argument that the borough council may find it difficult to access properties and take away rubbish.
In the case of Bridleways, it is not just the roads that cause the complication. There are also problems to do with the gradient, the layout and planning permission. A major issue is the need for proper partnership working between the different local authorities to ensure that arrangements are in place for the roads to be adopted and that there are the right enforcement powers so that people can move into the homes that they have been waiting to move into for some 15 months.
It really does sound as though the situation is horrendous in the hon. Lady’s constituency, and I can understand her anxiety. It has probably been complicated by the presence of the quango, the West Northamptonshire Development Corporation, which could have ironed out many of the problems at the start of the process. Nevertheless, the fundamental point, as I highlighted at the start of the debate, is that the section 38 process is not working properly despite the best endeavours of the local authorities involved.
I apologise for not being here at the beginning of the debate, but in the next two and a quarter hours of it, will my hon. Friend comment on the 52,000 new houses being developed in north Northamptonshire? The problem is that when councils reject plans because the roads will not be adopted and the infrastructure will not be in place, the decision is overturned by the Government inspector, as has happened with 3,000 homes in north Wellingborough.
I know that my hon. Friend has a huge problem with the Planning Inspectorate in Bristol with regard to the proposed development of 3,000 homes to the east of Wellingborough in his constituency. Clearly, local residents did not want that number of houses built in the proximity of their town, and despite his best endeavours and those of his colleagues on the local borough council, their views, although made very strongly, were effectively ignored and overruled by the Planning Inspectorate in Bristol.
One of the big problems with new housing developments is that roads are not being built to a suitable standard. If the Government’s mechanism for that—section 38 of the Highways Act 1980—is already failing, my hon. Friend and I cannot expect it to work in the case of the large new estates that are being proposed in his constituency, in mine and across the country. That adds to local people’s anxiety about the proper infrastructure not being in place when those new housing developments are constructed.
I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Northampton, North and my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) for highlighting specific examples of the problem. In my constituency, the main communities affected are Mawsley, a new, model village that has been under construction for some years now; the Grange estate, which is being built to the north of Desborough; and the Poppyfields development, which is still in the course of being constructed next to the railway line on Rothwell road in Kettering.
The problem is that Northamptonshire county council, despite its best endeavours, can effectively adopt land as highway land only if the developer wants it to do so. It has no power to require developers to hand over land for adoption, and it rightly takes the view that it will adopt land only if the developer has brought it up to the right standard. It surprises me that developers seem reluctant to bring their highways up to a sufficient standard, because one would have thought that one of the best ways to sell properties on new estates was to have the highways, pavements and lighting sorted out, which would attract new purchasers. It is a genuine problem, especially for Mawsley village.
Mr. Sanders from Mawsley has been a key figure in highlighting the problem. I wrote to the Minister for Housing at the Department for Communities and Local Government in August on behalf of Mr. Sanders. I had contacted the wrong Department, and I got a reply from the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Ipswich (Chris Mole). That was extremely helpful. He told me:
“The local authority, as the highway authority, is responsible for maintaining those streets that have been adopted by it, or its predecessor authorities. If the street has not been adopted, the responsibility for maintenance rests with the owner, or”—
as the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) highlighted—
“more usually the frontagers, who are the owners of the properties that fronts, or abuts, the streets concerned. Those purchasing a property in an unadopted street should be advised of its status and the implications by their solicitor.
There are two ways for the developer of a new estate to provide for the street to be adopted either by using section 38 of the Highways Act 1980 or by use of the Advance Payment Code provisions in Part XI of the same Act.
Section 38 of the Highways Act 1980 allows a developer to enter into an agreement with a highway authority for the adoption of a new estate road… once it has been completed to a satisfactory standard. This is a matter for the local authority and the developer. An adoption agreement allows a developer to complete the street certain that it will be adopted subject to an inspection to confirm that it has been built in accordance with the appropriate standard.
Alternatively, a developer may use the Advance Payment Code (APC), if building property on land fronting a private street.”
I imagine that that is the point of law that is of particular interest to the hon. Member for Ealing, North.
The letter continues:
“The landowner (usually the developer or builder) must deposit with the appropriate local authority a sum sufficient to meet the authority’s estimate for the cost of it making up the street for adoption and apportion the expenses incurred between the owners of premises fronting the street. The code removes the liability for the subsequent owners of properties on a newly developed street that they would otherwise have had to meet to bring the road up to adoptable standards.
Without an agreement under section 38 or use of an Advance Payment Code under the private street works code, then those owning property adjacent to an unadopted street are liable for both the maintenance of the street and for the cost of any works necessary to bring it up to the standard for adoption. Those buying a house on a new estate should be informed whether the street is subject to a section 38 agreement or APC and what stage this has reached. The impact of this should be explained to them by their solicitor when purchasing the property.”
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The impact should be explained by the solicitor, but the majority of pre-purchase searches that a solicitor makes relate to, for example, major roadworks, whether planning permission has been granted for any extension, whether there are any major infrastructure schemes, basic land ownership and what we used to call a Swansea search. In many cases, there is no way that one would even know that a road was unadopted. If it is fairly recent and has a thin skin of tarmac, it looks reasonable. I have many constituents who have scrimped and saved to buy a house and now face either a massive bill to bring the road up to standard or spending the rest of their lives on a road that is falling to pieces before their eyes, will damage their vehicles, be a danger to their children and reduce the value of their property. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting such issues—I hope that he will give further impetus to those points.
I am happy to give those points further impetus, but the main message that the hon. Gentleman and I wish to convey is that the Government need to take the matter away, and the appropriate Ministers in the appropriate Departments need to consider amending, for example, the estate agents’ code and the solicitors’ code, and examine whether there needs to be a change in the law to protect the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and mine from what can be very large charges.
The Under-Secretary of State for Transport rounds off his helpful letter by saying:
“Mr. Sanders raises some interesting issues, but these would require primary legislation and at present there is no suitable opportunity to do this.”
That is a great shame. It might be a late bid, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman could persuade his colleagues to put something in the Queen’s Speech next week. Whether by this Government or an alternative, these issues certainly need to be taken up and addressed in future.
An individual in my constituency who has been heavily involved in this matter is Councillor Jim Harker, who is the leader of Northamptonshire county council and, as it happens, councillor for the Kettering rural division that includes the village of Mawsley. He has been working extremely closely with councillors Jim Hakewill and Victoria Perry, who are the borough councillors representing the Slade ward, which includes the village.
In correspondence with constituents on this issue, Councillor Harker said:
“As you know, most of the roads in Mawsley are unadopted and there are no Section 38 agreements in place. It is, of course, our intention to adopt the roads but under the current”
“with the developers, there is no mechanism to force them to accelerate this process or a cut-off deadline for adoption. The County Council currently hold in excess of £4m bonds to be used in the event that individual developers are unable to make the roads up to adoptable standard and, consequently, we have to step in to resolve matters…The terms of the original planning permission make it difficult, but it seems that given the length of time that has elapsed since the commencement of people taking up residency, we do need to make every reasonable effort to get the roads adopted as soon as possible, rather than leave it to the developers, who we would have thought would be keen to see their bonds returned.”
He goes on to state that
“it is not a question of”
the county council not
“putting enough pressure on the developers. Although we have the bond, we cannot use it without their agreement and they could withhold this unless we can negotiate it sensibly. This will take some time. Otherwise we will be left with the status quo negotiations by”
Kettering borough council “in the original” section
“106 agreement, which means that adoption will not take place until the development is complete.”
Therefore, the default position is that county councils can apply very little effective pressure to get developers of new residential housing development to comply, meaning that roads, highways and street lighting will not, in many cases, be brought up to adoptable standards until the entire development is complete. For many large-scale housing developments, that could take five, 10 or 15 years. Effectively, the ineffectiveness of the legislation is condemning hundreds of thousands of people in new houses up and down the country to live with substandard roads, pavements and street lighting.
I have had a lot of correspondence from Mawsley residents on the issue. One e-mail came from Emma Brown who, in her own time, voluntarily edits the newsletter that goes around the village. She states:
“As well as editing the village newsletter, I am also a childminder in Mawsley. I complete the school run by foot twice a day with up to 8 children at a time. My concern is that the crossings on unadopted roads seem to mean very little to motorists. In my opinion, they feel that a zebra crossing on an unadopted road has no significance. Everyday I stand with my children waiting for the traffic to stop – they can see us but do not feel the need to let us cross…I understand that this is equally a matter of the motorists’ respect for pedestrians, but I think it is important to make the point that, if the roads are completed and ‘proper’ crossings are put in place, the motorists will take the crossings more seriously…It is only a matter of time before an accident happens.”
Another resident of Mawsley, Clare Farthing, sent me an e-mail saying:
“Basically we are a very young but growing village, as you are well aware, and we have a vibrant community, full of young families with children. The roads are beginning to become a real issue, not only for pedestrians (because of badly constructed curbs and potholes), but also for cyclists and cars. Without a robust infrastructure in place, it will become more of an issue. People are already falling over and injuries have been caused.
This is going to be an ongoing concern not only for Mawsley Village but for other new developments across the UK. There has to be a systematic approach to road adoption and developers need to be called to account before contracts are signed.”
She also says:
“This village is now the home of nearly 2,000 residents, most with young children and the risk to their safety is now becoming more and more prevalent. In fact a number of people are wondering whether to begin to start putting forward injury claims for slips and trips caused by uneven road surfaces, minor accidents caused by lack of road signs, traffic islands being put in unsuitable areas, the list goes on.”
They may have gone, or have gone bust. Certainly, the county council would not be liable, because it has not adopted the roads. In many cases, there would effectively be no redress for what could be some very serious injuries.
I have given the Minister some photographs of the roads in Mawsley village, which show the extent of the problem. Unadopted roads on new estates do not have a top surface—in many cases, neither do the pavements—so the kerbs are very high compared to normal residential areas. That is a very real problem for young mums with buggies or prams and for the elderly, who are more at risk of tripping over. It can also cause damage to vehicles, if they scrape the side of the kerb.
I declare an interest as I lived on such an estate, with the raised kerbs, with a young child. I was told that the reason that the roads were not being adopted was not the developer’s fault, but that of Anglian Water, because it had not done the sewerage. In his remaining time, perhaps my hon. Friend could develop that important issue.
Sewerage is indeed a fascinating subject, and I am sure that many hon. Members might think of applying for a separate Adjournment debate on it. It involves section 104 of the relevant Act and is covered by different legislation. As usual, my hon. Friend is right: in many cases, the necessary water supply and sewerage works are not co-ordinated effectively with the construction of the highway. That is surprising, because one would think that the developers would want to get all that sorted out in the appropriate order. Sadly, because the developers know that the local authorities cannot apply any effective pressure on them to get the roads up to a suitable standard, they are very dilatory about getting the pipe work sorted out. Later in my speech, I shall tell the House about a constituent who raised that very point with me.
Clare Farthing, in another informative e-mail, says:
“Sounds like the developers just don’t want to take responsibility for their part of the original agreement which was, as I believe, to look after several grassed areas, replant trees, resurface roads to an acceptable level…I do know that there are several new villages in Northamptonshire who have experienced this problem…I am in touch with several resident groups at the moment who are all experiencing the same problem.
Is it sensible not to have any road signs, or pavements that are so awful small children are falling through cracks and verges are crumbling into the road? Can anyone else help? What is a sensible negotiation period? Surely people cannot in their right mind think that 8 years is an acceptable negotiation period? If I approached business with that sort of time line in place then I wouldn’t be in business.”
My constituent Mr. Fergus Macdonald, from Burton Latimer, has also taken up the issue. He told me of his concerns:
“There is no established procedure to ensure that the adoption happens in a timely manner… It is often in the developers interest to postpone the adoption as long as possible… There are too many parties (often with different agendas) involved in the process… The rules concerning the necessity of ensuring that the roads upon completion become adopted are somewhat vague… I would suggest that it would not be too difficult to ensure that at the planning application stage the time scales for adoption are agreed and financial penalties agreed if these are not met. I would quote to you the case in Burton Latimer where we are still seeking adoption some 9 years after the original completion”.
That is an extremely good point, and one that Councillor Jim Harker, the leader of Northamptonshire county council, made to me today. There needs to be a mechanism by which the highways authority can ensure the phased adoption of roads on new estates, rather than leaving it to the very end.
Another constituent who has taken a close interest is Roger Knight. He told me:
“Improvements needed are: 1. To speed up the process requiring developers to sign up to a specific completion date after which the LA will deduct amounts per day (or week) from the deposited bond. 2. The bond itself is very difficult to find information about. When is it paid over by developers, who holds it and when is it paid back?... 3. There is often confusion between three levels of local government (in the shires). Planners, Highway Authority…, Water Authority and Environment Agency are adept at “buck passing”. Parish Councils have no powers but could be helpful in checking that work is completed on time”.
That is a very powerful point.
Roger Knight went on to cite the case of Hollow Wood road, Burton Latimer, built by Francis Jackson Homes of Olney. He wrote:
“This is a small development of 28 houses in a close. Built 2007-2009. Here the complaint is about the severe disruption to vehicular traffic as the pre-adoption work to drains and pathways has been”
undertaken. He continued:
“Inspection covers in the road were constantly lifted as leaks were corrected and access ladders installed. Why could the latter not have been installed at the time of the initial works?... Also in Burton Latimer the Hollands Drive developments, which was finished by 1999 is still not adopted.”
He has been in touch with Fergus Macdonald, who I have already quoted, and who is the town councillor responsible for highway concerns. They both raised these issues with me. Roger Knight continued:
“My main contention is that house purchasers, who expect a property to be fit to live in before they move in, should have access in a safe and reasonable state. Perhaps a provision to enable the withholding of Council Tax until this happens could also speed up a process which sometimes takes several years to complete?”
The issue of council tax has been taken up by many people affected by this issue. There is even an e-petition on the No. 10 website that states:
“We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to make significant reductions in Council Tax and Water Rates (e.g. 10-20%) payable in respect of homes on housing developments of more than 10 houses on unadopted roads.”
The explanation on the details of the petition on the websites states:
“Council Tax is used to provide local services. Although residents benefit from services outside the immediate area of their homes, some services are not provided on unadopted roads (e.g. maintenance of roads, litter collection, emergency repairs to sewers and street lighting; and landscape maintenance). Residents therefore have to rely on the developers to undertake such work, which can take a long while, and standards can vary considerably in quality. Council tax should be proportionate to the levels and standards of service provided by the local and water authorities. Residents selling homes on unadopted roads may be required to deposit considerable sums of money as a bond to cover repairs etc. to unadopted roads. This undermines the value of homes and could be considered an additional tax.”
My contention is this: unless the Government address that loophole in the law, there will be growing calls from up and down the country for an amelioration of council tax for those residents affected. At a time when the country is in such dire financial circumstances, I am sure that that is one campaign that the Government would be keen to resist.
My constituent Tom Sanders, whom I have mentioned already, has contacted me to say that, for him, the main issues are:
“Lack of maintenance on street and road traffic lighting. Road and pavement surfaces…trip hazards and incomplete drop crossings for pedestrian and disabled persons…Roads not gritted…during adverse conditions.”
He tells me:
“The fundamental problems are: The adoption process is un-regulated within the building industry. Builders/developers can pay ‘lip service’ to basic maintenance service support without any accountability. The whole adoption process can be dragged out with no restraints on a reasonable time frame. The local authorities have no empowerment on the adoption process and can only rely on negotiation.
These problems have been evident for some time at Mawsley Village and the main developer, Taylor Wimpey, have been slow and reluctant in dealing with basic maintenance issues such as street lighting, road potholes and unfinished pavement surfaces.
Taylor Wimpey also appear to be apathetic in bringing the development up to acceptable standards on road and pavement surfaces whilst a handful of houses are still to be built and construction traffic could be diverted.
Therefore, my request to central government and the building industry is: Legislate regulations into the adoption process which provides maintenance services which the developer delivers on a par with the local authorities. This service is ‘policed’ or monitored by the NHBC”—
the National House-Building Council—
“with a ‘one stop’ call and complaints process. The adoption process should be progressive and where possible roads and pavements should be finished off and construction traffic diverted to the remaining building sites (Mawsley Village is now almost 10 years old and not all the roads are finished)”.
Mr. Sanders took his complaints to the developer Taylor Wimpey. He wrote to Mr. Askew, the head of the organisation, and received a very nice reply from Steve Farmer, the regional managing director. Mr. Farmer said:
“Mr. Askew has asked me to respond to you on behalf of Taylor Wimpey due to my involvement with the Mawsley development.
Your letter correctly suggests that the issues you have experienced on the Mawsley site are typical of those on many other developments throughout the country.”
That is not me or my constituent saying that; it is a major house builder saying it. Mr. Farmer continued:
“Please let me know if you do not feel we are doing what we can, within our constraints, and I will investigate.
We feel that the general issue you raised is one that mainly effects large developments which do not have sufficiently phased section 38 and section 104 agreements.
It would be beneficial for developers to agree with local authorities at planning stage a phased policy for the development that would allow adoptions to take place at stages throughout the site.
Due to the experiences we have encountered on the Mawsley development this is a practice that we have already adopted on later sites.
In conclusion, we do recognise the issues raised and will work with the other parties involved to try and improve matters on developments in the future.”
So there we have it: an admission from one of the major house builders in the land that the law is not as it should be.
I am most grateful to the Speaker for giving me permission to hold this debate. This is an issue of major concern that will affect an increasing number of people, not only in my constituency but across the country. It is also an issue that could be solved relatively easily with a bit of political will and drive from the Minister. It will not just be a matter for the Department for Transport, however; other Government Departments will need to be involved.
This is not a party political issue; it is a real issue of major concern that will affect lots of people up and down the country. There does not appear to be any legal requirement for developers to enter into a section 38 agreement to have roads adopted. Even if they do enter into such agreements, local authorities are unable to access bonded funds from them without the developers’ consent. That is a major loophole in the Highways Act 1980 that this Government need to address.
I, too, thank Mr. Speaker for granting the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) the Adjournment debate. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing it, and on providing an opportunity to discuss the adoption of new streets, not only in his constituency but elsewhere. I should also like to put on record the fact that other hon. Members have been present and that the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), and my hon. Friends the Members for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) and for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) have made excellent interventions and raised some important points, some of which I shall try to deal with in the two hours that I have in which to respond to the 50-minute speech made by the hon. Member for Kettering.
It might be helpful if I first set out the background to how a highway becomes maintainable at public expense by a highway authority—a process known as adoption. During the hon. Gentleman’s 50-minute speech, we heard comments about regional bodies. Reference was also made to sewerage and to legal claims. I shall try to stay away from those subjects, and to respond only to the points that fall within the remit of the Department for Transport.
An unadopted street—or private street, as it is called in the Highways Act 1980—is a highway that is not maintainable at the public expense by a highway authority. The Highway Act of 1835 introduced the provision that, for a street to become publicly maintainable, the “responsible public authority” must deliberately resolve to adopt it. Nowadays, that authority will normally be the local highway authority—for example, Northamptonshire county council is the relevant highway authority for the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.
In general, the responsibility for maintaining a private street will fall to the owners of the properties adjoining it—they are known as the frontagers—who would also be legally liable to meet the expenses incurred by the council in making up the street for adoption. Part 11 of the Highways Act 1980 contains what is known as the private street works code. Under the code, a street works authority can resolve to make up a private street at any time. After the works, the street is usually adopted.
The authority can apportion the expense of making up the street between the frontagers, according to the lengths of the frontage of the individual properties that abut or front the street concerned. However, the authority may also modify those apportionments if it has been resolved in advance by the authority to take account of the degree of benefit—if there is any—that individual properties derive from the works. In addition, the authority may, if it sees fit, contribute to the cost of the scheme itself. I am not sure whether that happened in any of the cases that the hon. Gentleman described. There is provision for property owners to object to their apportionments if they see fit, and in the last resort they can appeal to my right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State against the sum demanded. That is the extent of the Department’s involvement in individual cases.
To avoid the wholesale creation of new private street works liability, the advance payments code was introduced. Under this code, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, a developer building a new property on land fronting a private street must deposit a sum equivalent to the authority’s estimated private street works charge, before building starts. This amount is set against the frontager’s own eventual liability for street works charges, which is discharged to the extent of that sum, along with any accrued interest. The frontager then pays any shortfall or receives a refund, as the case may be.
There is an alternative route to adoption for new streets. Under the Highways Act 1980, a developer can enter into an agreement with a highway authority for the adoption of a new estate road or, rather, a private street, when it has been completed satisfactorily. As the hon. Gentleman said, this is known as a section 38 agreement. In that case, the advance payments code does not apply and the house buyer on a new estate has the assurance that they will not be called upon to pay street works charges later on.
These “adoption agreements”, as they are known, offer such obvious advantages to both the developer and the authority that such an approach is often the preferred one. The developer has the certainty of knowing that, after a year, the authority will automatically adopt the street as a highway maintainable at public expense—subject, of course, to an inspection to confirm that it has been built to the standard agreed by the highway authority. I am not aware in respect of the streets referred to whether the highway authority, Northamptonshire county council, entered into such agreements.
Once adopted, the highway authority becomes liable for future maintenance and liabilities, should there be claims arising from the condition of the highway. Therefore most authorities will adopt a new street in a development only if it has been built to the agreed standard. Where an agreement exists between a highway authority and developer, it will be for the developer to inform the highway authority that the new street should be adopted. The use of agreements or the advance payment code is an important way of protecting the council tax payer.
The hon. Gentleman referred to four matters of concern to his constituents. On the first issue, which related to how the adoption of streets within new developments is carried out, it is clearly unfair to expect council tax payers to subsidise the building of new developments by expecting them to adopt streets that have not been built to the appropriate standards—hence the provision in legislation for agreements and the advance payment code. The hon. Gentleman referred to the 1972 figure of 40,000 unadopted roads and he referred to the Library paper that estimated about the same figure for the numbers today. At today’s prices, it would cost an estimated £3 billion for these roads to be made up. It is worth bearing that in mind in our discussions on this issue.
That is why the bond is so important, because it is intended to indemnify the authority from potential liabilities. Once the highway authority is satisfied that the new street is suitable for adoption, the bond is released. For newly built properties—the hon. Member for Wellingborough and my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North, as well as the hon. Gentleman, touched on this—those acting for the purchaser should establish the status of the new street and whether there is an agreement to adopt the new highway or that a bond has been lodged with the authority under the advance payment code and advise their client on the implications and what action they could take to mitigate this. In developments such as Mawsley village, it is in the developer’s interests to discuss at an early stage with the highway authority how the new streets and infrastructure should be built, rather than, as I understand is the case, to bring the streets up to standard after houses have been occupied.
Good local authorities—it is not for me to comment on whether the hon. Gentleman’s authority is a good or bad one—working within the national planning policy framework set planning policies so that local development meet local needs. They may choose to set local planning policies that impose requirements for streets in new developments to be built to the appropriate standard for adoption—an easy thing, one could argue, for a good local authority to do, and many good local authorities around the country are doing just that.
The hon. Gentleman must have seen my speech, as I am just coming on to that very point. The requirement can be enforced either through planning conditions or through the use of planning obligations—an agreement between a developer and a local authority. Kettering borough council, as the planning authority for the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, could have included that in its planning policies. In addition, if a developer intends a street to remain private with no public right of access, then some councils—the good ones—have entered into planning obligations under section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, which requires the developer to build the new streets to the authority’s standards and to maintain them in a good condition.
That is why the good planning departments work closely with developers to ensure that buildings are finished on time. Timelines are established so that buildings can be completed quickly.
The hon. Gentleman is presumably alluding to the recession. We know that some developers have had problems and that, for very good reasons, the building of new estates may be delayed. In such circumstances, we would expect the developer and the council to work closely together to ensure that residents who have moved in are not disrupted, and that residents outside the development who use the roads are not inconvenienced by unadopted roads that are not up to scratch.
Authorities will usually only adopt a street if it has been brought up to standard at the expense of the frontagers. As a result, an existing street may only be adopted if a majority of owners in that street agree. For obvious reasons, many authorities prefer to have 100 per cent agreement. If the householders are unable to pay, the Highways Act 1980 provides for the authority to agree to payment with interest over a number of years, or to place a charge on the property. Either approach means that an authority incurs expenditure on behalf of others that may not be recovered for many years, perhaps up to 20 to 30. The highway authority could, subject to decisions by its elected officers, agree to share the cost of bringing the highway up to standard.
Decisions about whether to adopt streets and take on the cost of maintenance are local matters for local decisions, which will be based on the priorities within the authority’s own programme of works. The hon. Gentleman, and my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North, may be interested to know that between 2008 and 2011 my Department is providing approximately £4 billion of capital funding to support local authority spending on small transport projects and highways maintenance, and around £2.3 billion on larger regional and local transport schemes. The local government settlement from the Department for Communities and Local Government distributes additional revenue funding to local authorities for transport purposes.
The Minister is giving a very good response, but may I pick up his point about money being provided by the Department for Transport? In Wellingborough, the Department is suggesting putting in a bus lane for about 60 yards, which will speed up buses by three seconds at a cost of £2 million. Local people say that that is nonsense, but unless the infrastructure is put in, all the rest of the Government funding will fall. That does not seem a very good way in which to approach the provision of local infrastructure.
The Minister has come up with a figure for investment in local roads. Surely he will be as surprised as me that the Department does not appear to have made any assessment of the road mileage of unadopted roads that are likely to come into public ownership over the next five, 10 or 15 years. If he shares my surprise, will he speak to his officials and establish whether there might be legitimate scope for the information to be obtained? Would that not make it easier for the Government to calculate how much extra public expenditure will be required in future?
I thought Her Majesty’s official Opposition were against databases. However, the hon. Gentleman will know that £3 billion is the cost of adopting the roads on the basis of the 40,000 figure I cited earlier. He will also know that those roads are local matters, and that for us to start compiling a database and obtaining the statistics from local authorities would take a huge amount of time. He, like me, is keen to ensure that every single penny of taxpayers’ money is used for sensible purposes, rather than being spent on compiling databases when we already know the cost that will be involved in adopting all the roads.
I refer the hon. Gentleman back to what he said in his speech, relying on the paper from the House of Commons Library. All the evidence suggests the number of unadopted roads is about the same now, 40,000, as it was then. I am not sure how having this scientifically tested would help because the point still remains that the cost of adopting those roads is approximately £3 billion. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that he can persuade his Front-Bench team to reach a consensus with us and agree that it is right to spend such a sum of money on that, or does he believe that we should have good planning authorities that work with developers to ensure that when roads are constructed, they are up to the necessary standard to be adopted, which I believe is the prudent course of action? I am unclear whether he is suggesting that his party should make a £3 billion spending commitment.
Neither the Minister nor I, nor any other Member, knows what that £3 billion figure is based on, because both the Minister and I are relying on a note from the House of Commons Library, and as esteemed as it is, the data are only based on original figures from 1972. Surely the Department for Transport can do better than that.
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman and I will agree on whether databases are a good thing and whether taxpayers’ money or civil servants’ time should be spent on compiling databases for this purpose. I do not think they should be, but he clearly disagrees.
There is no doubt that many people who live on private streets consider their liability to pay private street works charges as unfair, particularly people whose houses have long frontages, which make them liable to correspondingly high charges. However, while I obviously have sympathy for those to whom such charges represent a degree of hardship, we should remember that the liability for street works will appear in the local land charges register. The liability should therefore be taken into account in the purchase price of the house.
Many householders have paid to have their own streets made up, and might well feel aggrieved at a decision to make the service free to future users, especially in residential roads where the benefits will be enjoyed almost entirely by the householders and those visiting them, rather than by the public at large. When properties on unadopted streets are purchased, the searches should normally reveal that the street is unadopted, and the potential liabilities should be explained to those planning to purchase properties on an unadopted street by their conveyancer. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North made a very good point about buyers not always being informed of that by their solicitor or conveyancer. If he has examples of that, I will be happy to write to the Law Society to make sure they are looked into. Also, the hon. Member for Kettering might want to pass on to me examples in respect of additional guidance. I thought his party was against over-regulation and over-prescription, but if he is in favour of intervention and the hand of the state being placed on solicitors, I will be happy to listen to his representations and then write to the Law Society.
Some authorities have decided to tackle the issue of the number of unadopted streets in their area by funding some of the work to bring certain streets up to adoption standards. The focus is usually on streets that would benefit the local road network, for instance those that are a through route, or where the properties served are in a deprived neighbourhood. Authorities may use a number of sources of finance to support programmes to tackle long-standing unadopted streets in their area. Generally, these programmes are undertaken only where unadopted streets are in a bad condition and they provide the only access for a large number of properties. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Kettering has seen the unadopted roads information produced by the Department for Transport, but if he has not—or if his county council and borough council have not—I shall be happy to send him a copy. He simply need let me know after the debate has concluded.
The priority each local authority gives to spending resources on unadopted streets is for it to determine locally. The revenue support grant is allocated using a formula and, among other factors, it takes account of road maintenance, which is based on the length of road in respect of each of the different types of road for which the authority is responsible, along with the relative cost of maintaining the road, which takes account of traffic flow, population, and weather conditions.
Local councils could decide on a programme of adoption and it could be funded through either prudential borrowing or capital receipts from the sale of assets, which may be used for capital purposes. Local authorities already have the flexibility to prioritise their transport expenditure in line with their own locally determined policies. Each authority’s local transport plan is formed of a strategy and a shorter-term implementation plan, which is devised at local level in partnership with the community and recognises that local problems require local solutions. Funding for small-scale integrated transport improvement and maintenance schemes, such as making up unadopted roads, is provided as block capital allocations, allowing authorities to spend it as they wish according to local priorities. Such funding amounts to approximately £1.3 billion a year.
By working with highway authorities, developers can ensure that the streets in new estates can be adopted and the responsibility for future maintenance is transferred smoothly to the local authority. As long as streets are built in accordance with the local authority’s requirements, there is no reason why newly built streets should not be adopted. I sympathise with those living on new developments who are frustrated by the time taken on this. I empathise with many of the comments made by the hon. Members for Kettering and for Wellingborough and by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North, but they will agree that a considerable amount has been done in this regard.
I am happy for the hon. Member for Kettering to meet my officials if he has specific examples of ways in which we can improve things, but I say that with a caveat: he will appreciate that we have various ambitious plans over the next period, which will be set out in the Queen’s Speech next week. A number of his proposals will require primary legislation to ensure that the streets within new developments are built to appropriate standards. Bearing that in mind, my officials and I might not be receptive to some of his ideas if they require that sort of primary legislation or expenditure. If he has other ideas that are sensible, pragmatic, quick and cheap, we would listen with open ears to them.
Once again, may I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and thank him for the conscientious and assiduous way in which he has argued his points? I should also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North and the hon. Member for Wellingborough, who have stayed throughout this long debate.
Question put and agreed to.