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Volume 575: debated on Tuesday 4 February 2014

It is a pleasure, Mr Caton, to serve under your chairmanship in this debate, which someone I was talking to described as a quintessentially Liberal Democrat debate. That is why it is a great pleasure to welcome my colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams), to respond. I am sure that he shares in Bristol many of the problems we have in Cambridge. I know from talking to colleagues that the problem arises in many places. The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, my right hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), is campaigning to try to improve the pavements in his constituency.

The issue may not sound important, but it is for people and communities. Poor pavements can trap people in their homes, making them unable to participate in the wider world and the community and society of which they would like to be part. Kevin Golding-Williams from Living Streets, the national pedestrian charity, says that

“the pavement is the most democratic piece of infrastructure a government can provide. Whether you're a pedestrian, cyclist or motorist—you will use the pavement at some point during the day.”

He continues:

“High quality pavements are important for encouraging children to walk to school, and for making places better for walking—which can boost footfall and trading by up to 40%.”

My hon. Friend the Minister might like to talk to the Secretary of State, who has often said that the only way of advancing trading is not to encourage cars, but to promote cycling and walking, which do a huge amount to promote trading. I hope that he will encourage his right hon. Friend to change the focus.

Bad pavements cause problems for many people, particularly those in wheelchairs, those with pushchairs, the elderly, those with mobility problems, the visually impaired and many others. They all struggle with a pavement that others could cope with, but our pavements should be more than something we can all cope with. I have heard numerous complaints about the problems caused by poor pavements in Cambridge and throughout the country. Last year, I was contacted by an impressive resident of Cambridge, Claire Connon, who is a wheelchair user and is tipped to row for Britain in the 2016 Paralympics. I hope she will succeed in that and bring home a medal for us. If so, she would be the first intravenously-fed Paralympian. Claire told me that she often falls out of her wheelchair as she travels around Cambridge, although she is an experienced wheelchair user. When she contacted me, it was because she had fallen out twice in 10 days, on the second occasion landing on her wrists. That could have ended her rowing career before it had had a chance to get going.

I had been involved in such matters as a councillor and a Member of Parliament, so I knew that there was a problem with potholes and other large obstacles, but until I met Claire, I had not fully realised how a small problem on the pavement could be a huge problem for many people. Molehills can be mountains when they are in the way of wheels that cannot get over them. Claire said:

“It isn’t until you experience using a wheelchair around the streets of Cambridge you realise how uneven they are. There’s the obvious great big holes, but also small dips with slightly raised edges that, in my wheelchair I don’t notice until you’ve hit them and then the trouble and accidents start.”

She continued:

“'Many areas have five or six different pavement types in a small area making for an uneven and dangerous pathway not just for wheelchair users, but anyone with mobility difficulties.”

After talking to Claire, I thought I should find out more, so I arranged to spend a morning in a wheelchair with Claire and two of her colleagues, M.J. Black and Naomi Hook, and a range of interested city and county councillors. It was hard work—much harder than I had expected. I had had experience of wheelchairs—I used to be a volunteer with St John Ambulance and had helped out at a care home—but I had usually pushed a chair on flat, often carpeted, surfaces. Pushing my own wheelchair through the streets was incredibly energetic, and I struggled to understand how people manage to do so day in, day out. We did not choose particularly tough areas, but went around the city centre.

Petty Cury, which I had always considered to be a reasonably smoothly paved shopping street, was a nightmare. I had not realised that because of the camber, going in a straight line meant constantly pushing with one hand while the other hand had nothing to do. That was not due to my incompetence or lack of physical fitness, because I saw experienced wheelchair users such as Claire getting stuck as they tried to negotiate and deal with poorly designed kerbs and other problems. After a few corners, the pavement would suddenly stop and there would be no ramp to descend, which was a huge problem. Cars or trees may be in the way. A whole series of things make it impossible for people to get by.

Claire and I launched a campaign, “Fix Our Pavements”, which is online at, asking people to identify particular places where there are problems and to sign a petition to get those pavements improved. A lot of people have got in touch through that and signed the petition online and offline. I have to say, it is the easiest petition I have ever tried to run. People care very much about the issue, whether from personal experience—a number have experienced being in a wheelchair for some time or had to use crutches—or from their family’s, when there are ageing parents in particular. Time after time, people would say, “Yes, my mother-in-law had a problem with that.” It is a huge issue.

We have support from organisations as well, such the Whizz-Kidz charity; I am hugely honoured to be one of its parliamentary champions. It provides powered and lightweight wheelchairs and training and support for disabled children, young people and their families. It says that it is passionate about young disabled people having the freedom, opportunities and skills to fulfil their potential, and we know that the ability to travel independently and safely is an enormous part of that. Providing people with a wheelchair does not make sense if there is no way of getting around with that wheelchair. I applaud the charity’s work, particularly in providing lightweight wheelchairs, because working with a full, heavyweight, normal, NHS standard wheelchair was far too much work for me.

This is not only a problem for wheelchair users. On a number of occasions I have been contacted by a visually impaired constituent who is involved with the Cambridge walk-in cycling liaison group and Cam Sight, a local group that works with people who are visually impaired, to talk about the issues that people with visual impairment face. I have tried to find out about some of the challenges for blind and visually impaired people trying to go around the streets of Cambridge. Back in August, I was blindfolded for about 30 minutes and I walked around the city with a guide dog. That gives one a very different sense of what it is like, what the challenges are and what people face. Small things such as cracks and lumps can cause a problem. They can trip people up and get in the way, but so too can big things. Bins left out in the path can simply block the pavement, as can cars parked on pavements. Cars and trucks, of course, are one of the very reasons why pavements are cracked in the first place, causing the problems initially. To quote a guide dog owner, because Guide Dogs has been very involved in the campaign:

“My main problem is parked cars etc. on pavements, and also on the road near junctions where I need to cross. In general, lack of safe crossing areas means I rarely go out on my own...I cannot cross safely.”

That is a serious alarm that we should care about.

Guide Dogs has proposed that the London law that bans parking on pavements except where explicitly allowed should be expanded to cover the rest of the country as well, and it should be enforced. Living Streets research found that cars parked on the pavement was the single biggest issue when people asked about clutter in the streets: 41% of people said that was an issue. We need to tackle that problem. It would help to clear the ways and help not to damage the pavements.

There are lots of other obstacles, such as A-boards left out in the path. We have even seen cases involving safety signs—even though they may be put up for sensible reasons, they can cause harm themselves, as in the case of Cambridge resident Dr Peter Lawrence. A road sign was put out to warn people that works were coming along. He did not see it in the dark, because it had been knocked over, and he ended up falling over, causing himself significant injury and harm. There are lots of obstacles, but most of us simply are not aware of them most of the time. When parking, most of us would not think about making sure that we are not blocking off access to a pavement, whether that is about somebody is getting on or off it. When leaving a bike by the side of the road, I now always try to ensure that there is space for people to get by, but not everybody thinks of that—whether it is with their bins or anything else. There is a clear problem and a large number of national organisations are keen to see action. Age UK and many others have commented on that.

What is the solution? It is not just money. I absolutely appreciate that times are tough, but money for repairs is needed. It is helpful that the Government have top-sliced £50 million a year to encourage maintenance of cycleways and footpaths. That will be worth a huge amount. In fact, better than that, it can help to avert the costs that are incurred otherwise. Research by Guide Dogs in 2011 asked a range of councils how much they spent on compensation claims to pedestrians who had injured themselves by tripping and falling on badly maintained streets between 2006 and 2010. From the people who responded, it found that well over £100 million was paid out in compensation. The estimate of the amount paid out in compensation, if we cover all councils and include ongoing cases, is to the order of £300 million. Surely it would be better to spend £300 million and more fixing the pavements than to pay it out to people after they have been injured.

The solution is not only about money—although if my hon. Friend the Minister announced extra money, that would be welcome—but about attitudes and ensuring that things are done correctly and properly the first time. I was told of one area, near where I happened to be door knocking last week, close to the local shops on Carlton way, where the pavements had been fixed seven times. The slabs were picked up seven times, sand was put underneath, they were relaid, and the sand was washed away again—and the cycle repeated. Time and again, people were unable to get past the blockage. The underlying problem, which I think is a blocked drain, was not being solved. A lot of effort was put into trying to fix the surface at great expense, instead of fixing the core problem.

We see that in other areas. Work is happening on Mill road in Cambridge—it is a wonderful area that I urge you to visit, Mr Caton—to try to repair the pavements that are very damaged, affecting an area with a huge range of successful independent shops. Piero D’Angelico, the chair of the Mill road traders association, has done a great job in getting that work to happen, but delivery lorries are still parking on the pavements, still blocking the road as they do so, and still cracking the pavements that have been freshly laid. We have to get out of that cycle. Slabs are laid on sand but that cannot resist the weight of those trucks. It will look very nice for a short time, but then it will start to break down again, I am afraid.

Similarly, when roadworks are done, reinstatement is rarely as good as it needs to be, which is one of the major causes of potholes on the roads, as well as on the pavements. I have been talking to the Local Government Association’s street works task force, which is doing a piece of work—I was involved at the launch, and it will report soon—as well as county experts to try to find ways of ensuring that that does not happen, because the constant cycle of fixing things is not an efficient use of money. We have to try to avoid those scars.

There are problems with trees, as their roots can really push up the pavement and make it impossible for people to get past. Nobody is suggesting cutting down all the trees, but new surfaces, which are much more flexible and rubberised, can be used, so that we do not get huge mountains where the tree has grown. That would be a nice way forward so that people can get by and we still get to keep our trees.

There are many other problems that we should try to deal with, and I encourage people to report them. My colleague, the mayor of Cambridge, Paul Saunders, has now reported more than 500 problems that he has observed around Cambridge through the wonderful FixMyStreet website. Not all those have been repaired yet, but that shows the sort of scale involved. It also shows the value of civil society in ensuring that those reports can be made, so that people are aware of them. I urge other MPs, councillors, highways engineers and even Ministers to do what I did with Claire and with the guide dogs: to experience what it is like to get around in a wheelchair or if unable to see. Anyone who tries that would soon see the new surfaces that they are responsible for with new eyes and with the sort of determination that I now have to ensure that they are sorted out and improved. That would make a huge difference.

One of the top priorities of the Department for Communities and Local Government is to bring people together in strong, united communities. One of the key priorities for Liberal Democrats—part of our constitution —is to champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals. We cannot deliver on either of those priorities if people cannot get about, because the pavements will not let them do so.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) on securing the debate this afternoon. He opened his remarks by saying that the issue is probably one that I am familiar with in Bristol. I listened carefully to what he was saying; many of his points resonated with me not only in connection with my almost nine years as the Member of Parliament for Bristol West, but more directly with when I was a county councillor for the city centre ward in the 1990s.

Such issues were raised constantly by constituents at that time, particularly the obstruction of pavements by shops’ and cafés’ A-boards. Indeed, we had annual, almost perverse debates when setting the county’s budget—later on, the unitary authority’s budget in Bristol—about the insurance premium that the council had to pay to deal with accidents on the highway and whether that could be mitigated by extra investment in pavements.

I commend my hon. Friend on his direct approach to researching the topic and on his work with Guide Dogs for the Blind and other charities, and on even sitting in a wheelchair. I also commend him on giving people a solution. I had a look at his website before coming into the debate, and I saw the link to the website that he mentioned in his speech: Officials have pointed out to me—I am not suggesting that he changes the domain name; I am sure he has gone to great trouble to secure it— that in highway engineering terms, the correct term is “footways”, because pavements are apparently classified as what we would normally call roads. Whatever he has chosen to call it, I hope his website is a great campaign success in Cambridge. It is perhaps a model that other constituency Members will be adopting around the country.

Walkable neighbourhoods are typically characterised by having a range of facilities available to all residents that can be accessed comfortably on foot. Making the local environment convenient and attractive to walk in can help enhance the vibrancy of a community and reduce reliance on motor transport. So it is important that local highway authorities, which are responsible for footways, recognise the importance of keeping them in good order.

The Highways Act 1980 states clearly that the footway is an integral part of the highway. I note with interest the various initiatives being undertaken by my hon. Friend and the 2016 Paralympics hopeful, Claire Connon, in respect of setting up the campaign that I referred to earlier. Local highway authorities—in his case, Cambridgeshire county council—are responsible for repairing their highway networks. That includes ensuring the repair and renewal of everything from major bridges to potholes. Of course, there will be a lot of that after the recent, and continuing, wet weather. As part of the service, they are also responsible for maintaining footways—from removing weeds to repairing or replacing broken or missing slabs. Central Government help in that process by providing funding. The Department for Transport leads by providing capital support to authorities through what is known as the highways maintenance capital block grant.

Between 2011 and 2015—the current spending round—the Department for Transport is providing more than £3.4 billion to local highway authorities for highway maintenance. The funding includes additional expenditure that has been provided to help assist authorities to deal with problems they have encountered on their transport networks, caused by extreme weather events that the country has encountered since 2010. So it is not just this year; it is the previous extreme weather events that we have experienced as well.

Over that four-year period, we are providing Cambridgeshire county council with more than £48 million. Perhaps my hon. Friend will interrogate county councillors and highways officers from the county council on how they are spending that £48 million. I am sure he will want to ensure that Cambridge gets its fair share.

The Minister is absolutely right. It is the county’s role. He may not be aware that there was a scrutiny review of work with pavements led by a Liberal Democrat councillor colleague, and I will be taking the matter up further with the county council.

Does the Minister accept that there is a question about priority? He is right to say that a lot of money goes into the maintenance. Does he think that people always put pavements—or footways, as he correctly calls them—in the same category as roads? There is always a lot of discussion about fixing roads or building new roads, but never quite as much attention to the footways, which seem to get neglected.

My hon. Friend makes an entirely reasonable point. As well as being the Minister for Communities, I am also responsible for the localism agenda. I know he will agree, as a good localist himself, that it is up to local authorities to decide what their priorities are. Indeed, the money that Cambridgeshire county council gets—£48 million—is not ring-fenced; it is up to democratically elected councillors on that authority to decide what priority they wish to give to certain issues and how to spend that particular budget. Of course, county councillors, just like Members of Parliament, can be responsive to constituents’ views, but that is an issue for Cambridgeshire rather than for my Department.

In June last year, the Government announced, as part of the 2013 spending review, that they were committed to providing a further £5.8 billion for local highways maintenance to local authorities in England, outside London, between 2015 and 2021. That equates to £976 million per annum and highlights the Government’s continuing commitment to help make sure our roads and footways are fit for the future.

The Department for Transport has recently published a document that seeks views from highways authorities such as Cambridgeshire and other key organisations on how best to distribute the £5.8 billion to ensure that we get the best value for money for the taxpayer. The document suggests a number of ideas on how the funding could be allocated to local highway authorities, including one that would set aside part of the funding from the £5.8 billion for the maintenance of cycling and walking facilities. I know that cycling is a huge passion of my hon. Friend’s, and I commend him for the work that he has done in promoting safe cycling.

The Government also work with sector organisations, including the UK Roads Liaison Group, to encourage authorities to help develop asset management plans. Such plans are vital if local authorities are to take proper care of their highway assets. That will help authorities ensure that the highway infrastructure, including footways, is maintained efficiently. Asset management plans should not be documents that engineers write and then put on a shelf, although I am sure a lot of that goes on; they should provide a clear statement of the local authority’s highway assets, their condition and the level of service that the council wants to deliver. Again, I suggest my hon. Friend takes that up with officers on the ground in Cambridgeshire.

My hon. Friend alluded to the many benefits of well-maintained footways and pedestrianisation in relation to the environment in Cambridge. I have seen such benefits in Bristol. Evidence certainly suggests that investment in walking and the wider public realm can increase economic value and economic activity in local areas. A United States study undertaken in 2012 suggests that well-planned improvements in the public realm can help to boost footfall and trading by up to 40%. In addition, people on foot also tend to linger longer in key shopping areas in towns and cities and spend more than those who travel by car.

People-friendly streets, including good cycling and walking networks, benefit everyone and provide benefits for our health, as well as boosting local economic growth. My hon. Friend mentioned the Olympics and Paralympics, and all of us still have different memories of those occasions that inspired us. One of the legacies that the Government definitely want to see from those events in London is that more children and adults should get active and become more healthy as a result.

That is a cross-Government aspiration. Last August, the Department of Health announced a £5 million initiative to encourage children and families to exercise more. As part of that funding, £1 million is being provided simply for walking initiatives, to help people get more active. I understand that Cambridge will benefit from the funding in the form of a new footway and cycleway route between the train station and Cambridge science park, to which I am sure my hon. Friend is a frequent visitor, as he is one of the few scientists in the House of Commons. The science park is also a major employment centre for the city economy.

The Department for Transport has also supported “walk to school” week, which is an excellent opportunity for schools to engage with children and parents and to encourage walking to school. In addition, the £600 million local sustainable transport fund includes a range of schemes designed to help improve local facilities for pedestrians, including better routes and signage, improved crossings and new footbridges.

My hon. Friend mentioned dropped kerbs and obstacles on the pavement. Under the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, public authorities have a general duty to promote equality, and those who design, manage and maintain buildings and public spaces have a specific obligation to ensure that people can play a full part in benefiting from and shaping an inclusive built environment. We encourage local authorities to consult representatives of various user groups to help inform the design of local streets.

Not all disability relates to difficulties with mobility, so it is important not to overlook the needs of those with sensory or cognitive impairment, the elderly and young parents with pushchairs. I find it helpful to think of people not simply as being disabled, which is the language often used, but as being disabled by the environment in which they must operate. Politicians at all levels must try mitigate those problems as far as possible.

The Department for Transport promotes guidance for practitioners involved in the planning, provision and approval of new residential streets and modifications to existing ones. The guidance highlights the importance of street design’s being inclusive to accommodate all people regardless of age or ability. It advises on a number of appropriate surface level crossings that might be provided, where practicable, to connect pedestrian networks to one another, particularly where those networks are separated by heavily trafficked roads.

The guidance also explains that street furniture, which is typically sited on footways, can be a hazard for users and suggests that it be minimised wherever possible. In Cambridge, Bristol and other places, I believe that the local authority might benefit from an audit of its street furniture—a highway engineers’ term for clutter, which denotes signage, railings and so on—to see what might be cleared away, with a particular focus on the supposedly temporary signs that linger for a long time after the events that they advertise have happened. People are keen to put things up but not always so keen to take them down.

I turn finally to parking on footways, which my hon. Friend mentioned several times. Cambridge has many narrow streets in which that will always be a factor. We fully appreciate that parking on a footway or verge can cause serious problems for pedestrians—particularly those in wheelchairs, those who have visual impairments and parents or grandparents pushing prams and pushchairs. Indiscriminate pavement parking may also damage the verge or footway, and the burden of repair costs normally falls on the local highway authority. In some streets, parking on footways may be inevitable to maintain free passage of traffic while meeting the needs of local residents and businesses, and traffic signs are prescribed for this purpose. It would not be possible to get a refuse wagon, let alone an emergency vehicle, down some of Bristol’s narrow streets if that were not the case. That is often left to the common sense of local residents.

Local authorities outside London have wide-ranging powers under sections 1 and 2 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 to make traffic regulation orders that prohibit pavement parking on designated lengths of highway or over a wide area. Such pavement parking bans outside London would need to be appropriately signed so that motorists were aware of the restriction. In areas where the local authority has obtained civil parking enforcement powers, civil enforcement officers can enforce pavement parking bans on designated highways by issuing penalty charge notices. In February 2011, the then Transport Minister, our hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), wrote to all local authorities outside London prompting them to use their existing powers to prevent people from parking on the pavement where that was a problem.

In conclusion, the Government recognise the importance of ensuring that pavements are not obstructed by vehicles, street furniture or other privately-owned paraphernalia. It is not simply down to Government, however; I always say as a Liberal that Government and the state are not always the answer. It is up to all of us to encourage responsible behaviour, exercise common sense and show basic courtesy for the road needs of others.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.