Skip to main content

Speed Limits on Roads (Devolved Powers) Bill

Volume 605: debated on Friday 5 February 2016

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am grateful for the opportunity to air my Bill today, and I, too, add my condolences to those expressed about the death of Harry Harpham, our honourable colleague and friend whom we have lost.

My Bill sets out to allow parish, town and city councils to set their own speed limits in their designated patches. This came about from recent visits to schools in St Teath, and notably in Werrington, where the young people wrote to me and asked me to come to their school and talk to them about traffic management and how we might adjust speed limits in that area. They wanted a 30-mile-an-hour limit, and I said that I would try to do something about it, which is why I am piloting this Bill. I went to Werrington and had an interesting discussion with the residents there. Indeed, we spoke about all sorts of things, but predominantly about the speed of the traffic.

If we hold a referendum on this issue—we are keen on referendums on the Conservative Benches—it would be done in line with local, national and European elections, and those for police and crime commissioners, and we would run a ballot alongside those elections on the proposals put forward by a local authority. If two parishes that are joined together wanted to change the speed limit in their area because the road crosses between the two, they could submit a joint proposal, and the referendum would be held in both parishes, rather than just one.

I am a firm believer in devolution, and the recent historic devolution deal proposed for Cornwall covers bus services and the European spending programme, among other things. For me, a lot of that devolution takes place in unitary and county councils, and there is not a huge amount of it in town and parish councils. I felt that it was important to get something on the record to state that town and parish councils would like a say. Speed limits are a good thing for them to discuss, because local people know the roads better than people who live hundreds of miles away. They drive on those roads every day. The people who use them should be able to set the speed limits for them.

I would just like to run through a few of the details in the Bill. Parish councils may change speed limits only on minor roads, B roads, and single carriageway A roads with a speed limit of no higher than 60 mph. The Bill does not propose just reducing the speed limit; it would allow speed limits to be increased through a referendum. I have had representations from the National Motorists Association, which was very concerned that we were proposing only to reduce speed limits. I tried to provide some reassurance that the Bill was not just about reducing speed limits, but about providing the possibility of increasing speed limits in some areas so that traffic flow is suitable for a designated area.

Leading up to a referendum, a parish council would carry out a detailed public consultation, including at least one public meeting to outline the proposals. The proposals would then be put to a vote of the parish council—or town or city council. If the vote is carried, the council would be obliged to put the proposals to a referendum, with ballot papers included in the ballot papers for other elections, such as local, general, police and crime commissioner or European elections. That would mean the cost to parish councils is marginal. They would foot the bill, which would be small, for the printing costs of the ballot. Other than that, there would be no financial implications.

I propose a cooling-off period of 30 days after the full council vote, so that if the unitary council or county council were so minded, it could implement the proposals without the need for a referendum. The referendum would still take place if it was not minded to do so. A referendum would be decided by a very simple majority-based voting system. The town or parish council would come up with a simple proposal, such as “Road A would be transferred from 40 mph to 30 mph,” or “Road B would be transferred from 40 mph up to 50 mph.” The proposal would be on the ballot paper and people could make their minds up on polling day whether they wanted to change the speed limit in their area. If the proposed speed limit is accepted, the emphasis would be on the local authority to implement the change within 12 months, so town and parish councils would pass a proposal for a referendum and the local authority would then be under an obligation to implement the result within a 12-month period.

The Bill sets out that a maximum of three roads can be taken into account at any one time. If we went beyond three, it could become very complicated. The printing costs of the ballot papers would be met by the town, parish or city council, but no additional funds for the cost of the referendum would be borne by those authorities. They could put counting processes in place to plan for referendums.

A county council or unitary authority would still reserve the right to implement speed limits without parish council consent on safety grounds alone. Once a speed limit had been put to a referendum, it could not be altered for five years unless the unitary authority or the police deemed that there were exceptional circumstances, or that safety concerns had changed and the road layout needed to be altered. There is a caveat to that, however. Those changes would have to come back to the town or parish council for them to change the order.

Speed limits could not be raised outside schools. In general, we believe that lowering speed limits outside schools should be encouraged. A county council, unitary authority or the police may block a proposal if it is deemed to be too dangerous—for example, raising a speed limit from 30 mph to 60 mph—and any safety concerns should be represented during the consultation process prior to a referendum. That should alleviate concerns about safety.

Finally, many parish and town councils are developing local plans. The Bill would take housing growth into account. I am very grateful for having the opportunity to air the Bill. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I join others in paying tribute to our friend Harry Harpham. He was a great defender of working people and his city of Sheffield, and his loss will be deeply felt. He will be missed very much, not least in Nottinghamshire, where he worked as a miner. I offer my sympathies to his family.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) for his brief introduction to the Bill, and I completely understand the desire of many communities to exert a greater say over traffic movements, especially as the condition of local roads continues to deteriorate. Labour’s support for the devolution of powers, our encouragement of more 20 mph zones and our support for the reintroduction of national road safety targets are long-established.

I have concerns, however, that town and parish councils might not have either the resources or the expertise to administer the responsibilities that would be transferred to them in the Bill, and I have not been persuaded that a referendum should be held in these cases, rather than a local consultation. I am sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman’s arguments, but I am not convinced that the Bill represents a suitable mechanism for introducing appropriate speed limits at a local level.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) proposes giving parish and town councils powers to hold local referendums to determine whether applications for speed limit orders should be made. If the electorate voted in favour, the traffic authority would be required to start proceedings to make the speed limit order.

Moving goods and people around quicker is good for the economy, but speed poses dangers too. In 2013—the most recent year for which we have figures—exceeding the speed limit was a contributory factor in 15% of fatal accidents and travelling too fast for the conditions was a contributory factor in 13%. In addition, where the speed limit was exceeded, there were strong associations with other factors—for example, a stolen vehicle or a vehicle being driven in the course of a crime or where there is impairment by drugs or alcohol.

Setting speed limits at a level appropriate for the road and ensuring compliance with the limits play a key part in ensuring greater safety for all road users. Local authorities are responsible for setting speed limits on their roads, as they have the local knowledge, which makes them the best placed people to do so. While completely sympathising with my hon. Friend’s intentions, therefore, the Government oppose his proposal, because speed limits should be evidence-led and based on road conditions. They should also be considered together with other measures, such as traffic calming, signing, publicity and information. This should lead to a mean traffic speed compliant with the signed limit. To achieve compliance with a new limit, there should be no expectation on the police to provide additional enforcement, unless explicitly agreed.

Local authorities are asked to have regard to the Department for Transport’s speed limit guidance, issued in January 2013, which is designed to ensure that speed limits are appropriately and consistently set while allowing for the flexibility to deal with local needs and conditions. I suspect that many in a community could not take the decisions that a qualified highways engineer at the local highways authority could. I am concerned, therefore, that while local communities feel passionate about these matters, they would not be suitably qualified to make those decisions.

Consultation with those affected is of key importance in the process of making a speed limit order, so local people do have an opportunity to make their views known. In my constituency, in the village of Wykeham, local campaigners alerted local councillors to the need for a particular speed limit, and that speed limit was then put in place. Similarly, in the middle of Scarborough, where a rat run was developing, the same process took place. Local people do, therefore, have an opportunity to have their say. They can sign petitions and lobby their locally elected councillors, who make these decisions.

In some cases, increasing a speed limit can actually contribute to safe roads. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but the previous Government increased the speed limit for heavy goods vehicles on single carriageway roads from 40 mph to 50 mph, and thus lessened the differential between cars, which would travel at 60 mph, and lorries, and that reduced the number of overtaking accidents. That has been in place for some months now, and we have not had any reports of an increased number of accidents.

I completely sympathise with my hon. Friend’s reasons for introducing the Bill, but we do not think it practical to give this power to parish councils, and I invite him to withdraw it.

In the light of the Minister’s response, I will withdraw the Bill. However, I will lobby the Secretary of State to try to get some of these powers in the devolution package for Cornwall, and I hope we might make some progress in devolving the power to town and parish councils in other areas. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and Bill, by leave, withdrawn.