[Sir Alan Meale in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered GPS satellite navigation and heavy goods vehicles.
This is an increasingly complex issue because of the proliferation in recent years of devices and, more importantly, software available across Android, Apple and Microsoft-driven smartphones. The issue is not new but has been bubbling in the background for well over a decade. In-vehicle information systems, or IVISs, have received Government attention over the years, including in the Road Traffic (Driver Licensing and Information Systems) Act 1989 and the Driver Information Systems (Exemption) Order 1990, which concentrated on a licensing scheme for providers of real-time on-the-move information, such as Trafficmaster.
There was also a Government consultation in 2006, which sadly received just 111 replies. The results of that consultation were published in May 2008, but there were no firm recommendations for action. However, the sat-nav problem was highlighted in the consultation. In those days, very few heavy goods vehicle-only systems were available, which shows how technology has moved on at an exponential rate. The report concentrated heavily on the safety issues of—this is quite bizarre nomenclature—the human-machine interface, or HMI. There was subsequently one welcome legislative amendment, in 2011, giving local highways authorities the ability to implement advisory signs without formal traffic orders needing to be made.
On 6 March 2012, the Department for Transport hosted a “Delivering the best information to all in-vehicle satellite navigation users” afternoon. It was intended to encourage appropriate sat-nav use, local authority involvement with the mapping companies, and consideration of using the insurance market to force HGVs to require appropriate HGV-robust sat-navs. That is especially important when hugely expensive bridge collisions occur, as happens in many constituencies. Those collisions can stop train services while the damage is assessed. That has not been an uncommon occurrence on the north Kent line running through Strood.
Kent County Council, as the highways authority for Kent, issued a freight action plan in October 2012 to cover the four-year period from 2012 to 2016. It highlighted the problem, unique to Kent, of having the active cross-channel ports of Dover and Sheerness, the port of London, the then fully operational Ramsgate port, and the channel tunnel. Kent has a uniquely high level and density of foreign trucks on its roads because of the port activities, and that presents unique problems. The KCC action plan highlighted inappropriate sat-nav use and particularly the necessity of appropriate advertising of strategic road use across the county.
The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), told the House on 20 July 2015 that legislation might be an inappropriate and bureaucratic means of addressing these issues. Despite a number of years considering the problem and despite the numerous initiatives, the problem persists, and it is my contention that it is getting worse and more widespread than ever. The A257 Sandwich to Canterbury road suffers from inappropriate HGV use, and, importantly for the historic fabric of our nation, there are far too regular occurrences of economic standstill in the historic town of Sandwich as inappropriate vehicles that have absolutely no cause to be there become literally stuck, sometimes for hours.
I apologise in advance for the technical nature of my next comments, but I think it is worth while to lay out the framework of the advanced wizardry behind this now routinely used technology. The global positioning system comprises 31 US satellites orbiting 12,500 miles above the Earth. The system became fully live in 1995, but was available before then at lower levels of accuracy.
I congratulate my hon. Friend, who is making an excellent speech on a subject that is important to my constituency. He mentions the wizardry involved. He may be interested to learn—I will talk about this later—that one of the houses in my constituency that is most frequently damaged by HGVs was used for the set of the Harry Potter film. Unfortunately, that wizardry is not available to us.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I am sure that if we asked just about every Member of the House, they would be able to cite similar problems of historic buildings being hit.
I will develop a little further my point about the technical wizardry. The GPS concept is based on time and the known position of specialised satellites, which carry stable atomic clocks that are synchronised to one another and to ground clocks. The satellites’ locations are known with great precision. The GPS receivers that we all have on our phones and cars and wherever else also have very accurate clocks. GPS satellites transmit their current time and position, and a GPS receiver, looking at multiple satellites, solves a complex equation and determines its exact position.
As can be imagined, given the usefulness of such technology, it was designed in the US primarily for military use, but its use rapidly spread to marine navigation and has now spread to road navigation, as accuracy levels are now down to 5 metres or less. The system is free to any user on the planet who has a GPS device and it must be considered a true gift from the United States taxpayer to the world. Other countries have replicated the system, or tried to replicate it. There is the Russian GLONASS system, and the European Galileo system and Indian, Chinese and Japanese equivalents are in progress. However, I doubt that any of those new variants will ever overcome the dominance of the US GPS system, obtained through reliability and dependability. There is of course the downside that the US Government could at their discretion turn off the system for civil use at any time. One can imagine that at times of global instability that might be done, but it has never happened thus far.
It was not too many years ago—perhaps 15 years ago—that I was looking with some wonderment at the new gadgets that were appearing on friends’ car dashboards. TomTom was an early market entrant, and for many it became a status gadget, along with early in-built dashboard models in premium cars. However, it became clear within a year or two that they rapidly became out of date as new road schemes came into being. Updates for such machines were cumbersome, were often subject to expensive upgrade charges and, in the case of in-built systems, were sometimes available only at main dealers.
I thank my hon. Friend for initiating this debate on a pertinent issue. He makes the point about devices losing their accuracy as new roads are built. It is also still a problem that they cannot tell how big or small a road is. In my constituency there is a place called New Smithy, near Chinley. Wagons continually get sent down the road there. The county council, which I rarely have a good word for, has done what it can with signage, but devices lead drivers down to a low bridge that they cannot get under. They have to turn round and they knock the bridge, and the costs of having to keep repairing the bridge are ridiculous. That is all because of sat-navs not being able to tell that there is a low bridge under which drivers cannot get their wagons.
My hon. Friend highlights exactly what the debate is all about. I will be coming to exactly that issue in a moment.
There are now a host of portable devices—they are actually called nomadic dedicated devices—that people can put in their pocket and in different vehicles that they own. They are available at varying costs, with new brand names now commonplace in the market. TomTom was a market leader in the early days. Now there is Garmin, which was traditionally a big player in the marine navigation market, and there are names such as Mio, Navman, Magellan and many others. The price of those machines for car use is now as little as £50. For larger screen sizes, the prices can be up to £250.
The market has changed, because we now have the ability to download smartphone software, often for free, across the major phone operating systems. A search of Google Play or Apple’s App Store would reveal a huge choice of available software. Some is free if one is prepared to accept adverts, and some is free for a limited trial period. There are also fully paid systems, but even those are at a remarkably low cost, sometimes of less than £20. Practically every personal digital assistant device that we own—smartphones, iPads, other tablets—now has GPS functionality, and they can all support such software. Many operate on the widespread Google Maps application, which, as with everything Google, is becoming dominant.
I want to go back to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) made. My hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) is talking a lot about technology, and I must admit that I do not have the same level of expertise that he does. Is there any sign in the industry that the technology is reaching a point at which, without us having to legislate or regulate, it could tell a driver, “This road is inappropriate relative to the size of your vehicle”?
If my hon. Friend will let me continue just a little bit further, I will address the potential solutions.
We all realise the dominance of Google in our lives and on every machine that we own. Google Maps is a widely used application, but the downside for many of us is that it needs data transfer and use while on the move. That is not particularly helpful for people who are travelling abroad, given the data charges for foreign use. Software-based systems—the dedicated TomTom-style devices—have underlying, in-built maps called geographic information system data. They are installed so that there is no mobile data use. That is often the underlying framework used by nomadic and smartphone devices.
I think the solution lies with the base maps that the systems use. Only a few are actually used. A market leader is Navteq’s SDAL map, which is now called HERE. The Tele Atlas system drives TomTom and provides Apple Maps with its data. Of course, Google Maps has its own system. There is also an open source system called OpenStreetMap. There are 100 or more software variants that can run across different types of map data, and there is interchangeability in some software and devices so that they can accept and read any maps, from wherever they are sourced.
I appreciate my hon. Friend giving way and congratulate him on securing the debate.
The emergency services sometimes have a problem if, for example, a road has been cut in half because something has changed, with a housing estate being built or something of that nature. However, they tend to make that mistake only once. Can something be done along the lines of what the emergency services do, so that updates to roads can be fed in to the companies that supply us with devices?
On the Navteq website, the public have the ability to put in new data as they arise. The company will then check those data and, if it is satisfied with their quality, they will become a new variant of future maps that it produces. Everybody is able to update those maps on a regular basis. It comes down to the fact that the data are out there if one could only find them.
For anybody who uses such systems, other data sources can be laid over the map data—often speed camera information or locations of points of interest such as museums, restaurants or even petrol stations—but, again, another problem creeps in. There is a huge black market out there of free downloads across so-called torrent sites, and that is becoming a huge industry. Therein lie the problems of accuracy and reliability, and questions about whether the data driving the devices are actually up to date at all.
Within a huge majority of the systems with which we are now becoming familiar, choices are available, including voice type and whether the data are required in metric or imperial. One can set up advanced warning alerts, choose whether travel is on foot or by car and decide whether one wants to take the shortest route, the fastest route, or a route with or without tolls. Wrong data or out-of-date devices are issues. If that is applied just to driving in a car, the worst that could possibly happen is that it could lead to a fine if entering a changed road layout, for example. In HGVs, the problem—and this is at the heart of the debate—can be infinitely more serious.
On that point, I come to the key issue. The use by HGV drivers of those cheaper car devices—available for £50, as I mentioned earlier—is all too common. That is compounded by smartphone software that is designed for car use only and, overlaid on that, the use of out-of-date map data that are perhaps downloaded illegally or from dubious sources. I am pleased to say that the problem is not largely seen across the UK lorry fleet. I pay tribute to the Freight Transport Association for its attempts to encourage its 15,000 members to buy HGV-compliant devices. It even has its own industry specialist shop, and provides a high level of advice to its members. I am pleased to say that common sense prevails across its wide membership and influence.
I do not particularly want to single out foreign drivers as the main culprits, but the example I want to present is from Sandwich in my constituency. I am sure that in almost every constituency in the country there are instances—such as those that have been raised by hon. Members today—of HGVs too often using inappropriate roads. A common excuse is usually advanced, and it always runs something like, “Oh, my sat-nav told me to.” After that, there is often a mad struggle for Google Translate to solve the communication problem.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. These issues might sound trivial to some people who do not have constituencies that are constantly affected by them. In my constituency, the A170 runs up Sutton Bank and there are two one-in-fours divided by a hairpin bend. There are two incidents there a week with lorries having to back up all the way into the village, often causing damage to property and huge tailbacks for several hours. Does my hon. Friend know the combined economic costs of all these issues nationally?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point about not just the physical damage that occurs to road structures and historical buildings, but the economic cost of hours of tailbacks. One could probably make a reasonable guesstimate of what that cost would be in an individual place but, as my hon. Friend points out, this is happening in virtually every town in every constituency on a weekly basis.
My seat is very rural so we have all the economic difficulties but there are also safety issues. Wagons are being shoehorned down lanes such as Mainstone Road, which is related to the problem in my constituency that I have already mentioned. Large wagons go down little lanes and roads, often at times when schools are turning out and so on. There is a safety issue as well as all the inconvenience, and the problem is particularly acute in rural areas.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. Not only do we have physical damage but we have the economic costs and the serious issue of road safety in areas that should not be affected by having such huge lorries in the wrong places.
Sandwich in South Thanet is the best preserved medieval town in the country—I am sure other Members will be on their feet claiming the same of towns in their constituency—and HGVs have caused damage to its roads, kerbs, signs and, perhaps more importantly, its historical buildings. There is a particular junction—Members will realise the historical nature of Sandwich—called Breezy Corner, and just a little way away is a barbican dating back to 1539 and an ancient toll bridge. Those structures are damaged on an almost weekly basis. In addition—and this addresses the economic points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake)—40-foot HGVs are completely unable to negotiate the tight corners in such an historical town, which often leads to the complete blockage of the town for many hours while emergency services attempt to sort out the mess. That is time that the emergency services, particularly the police, could and should use to deal with other issues.
The A257, the Sandwich to Canterbury road, is served by lots of little feeder roads, some barely wide enough for a car. That is just within 10 miles of Dover so, again, it is commonplace to find foreign HGV drivers slavishly following their sat-nav’s guidance after selecting the shortest route option.
My hon. Friend makes the perfect point. I have many residents in Sandwich who are fearful for their property and for their very life, and he raises that problem well.
I would never call myself a luddite, but consulting a good old-fashioned road map always seems to result in greater awareness of my location and how to get to my destination. When using a sat-nav, I am reduced to the state of a compliant zombie, like an automaton at the wheel doing exactly what I am told by the artificial voice from the machine. “Turn left in 300 yards,” and so on. I am sure hon. Members have all felt the same.
I have consulted various retail websites and—this is the important point—HGV-compliant sat-navs are available. For instance, the TomTom Trucker is available at £290, with little obvious difference in screen size or functionality from the car model available for a third of the price. As part of my research before the debate, I consulted a nationwide haulage company, R Swain & Sons. The company’s head office is in north Kent and I know the owner, Mr Bob Swain. He explained the approach taken by his business. He uses no sat-navs at all in his fleet—not one—but he ensures that his drivers are provided with maps and given time to plan their routes before setting out. I know of no instance where one of his lorries has caused such problems.
Of course, it is easy to highlight in Parliament the problems that we face, but I like to come at such problems with potential solutions. In this case, there are six potential solutions. We could implement legislative change to force the use of the right HGV-compliant sat-navs. If we go over and drive in the continent, we face the requirements under French law to carry high-vis jackets, reflective triangles and alcohol breath testers, and we accept those requirements as the rules of that place. I do not propose the mandatory use of sat-navs so that they have to be carried by HGVs, but I suggest that, if they are used at all, they should be compliant and suitable for the vehicle or else face potential forfeiture once found not to be appropriate.
I have encouraged Kent County Council’s highways authority, and I would do the same for all highways authorities, to ensure that maps of Kent that clearly highlight strategic road routes that should be used, and clearly mark the towns and villages that should be avoided, are provided free at ports of entry. With the implementation of an Operation Stack truck-stop solution coming to Kent in due course, providing such maps could serve a useful double purpose. I imagine that advertising sponsorship could be found to defray or cover the costs of such maps.
I would like to see greater use made of the freedoms of the December 2011 road signs measures so that local areas can clearly advise of dangers ahead. As a Government we could encourage data standards for the submission of data by the highways authorities to the mapping companies, because those companies are key. It is frustrating that all the data are known for every road in the country—be it heights, widths or road changes—but they are not being appropriately consolidated and provided to the mapping companies.
I recommend a benchmark standard for the sat-nav manufacturers and software providers to which they should be encouraged to adhere. The benchmark would include—this is the key—a mandatory lorry option across every single device. There is already an option to choose whether one is on foot or in a car, so let us add a mandatory lorry option. That would require manufacturer and software producer buy-in to a voluntary industry code of practice.
I would also like to see a widening of local authorities’ civil powers to levy fines outside of the police’s powers. We have seen a general reluctance among authorities to enforce fines across borders on foreign lorries, as we have seen with Transport for London, the congestion charge, the Dartford crossing and general parking enforcement. It sounds good, but it might not prove as effective as imagined.
I close by highlighting that we face an unprecedented free-for-all in current sat-nav use, with inappropriate devices and software in play across many HGVs—mainly, I am sorry to say, foreign ones. I am not one for draconian legislation, but our towns, villages and historical locations need protection. I would be happy to work with the Department for Transport to find a workable and practical solution and I look forward to the Minister’s comments.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. Again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) on securing this timely debate. I am here because I receive constant email correspondence on the subject, which I regard as one of the biggest issues in my constituency.
In the past couple of weeks, we have had a major incident in Sudbury, a big market town in my constituency, which I will address in a moment. The purpose of my speech is simply to emphasise that there is a problem that we need to address. My hon. Friend has come up with many interesting solutions, and I will not pretend to share his technical expertise, but I will emphasise what is happening in my constituency.
Lavenham is a fine medieval village. I will not be undiplomatic and get into a competition about how it compares with Sandwich, but suffice it to say that they clearly share a great and ancient heritage that is threatened by HGVs. I recently received an email about Lavenham from a chap called Tony Ranzetta, who lives in Water Street—his house dates back to the 15th century and was used in the “Harry Potter” films. He says:
“Along the A1141 as it enters the village of Lavenham, is a unique set of houses, the longest uninterrupted terrace of medieval hall houses in England, followed by one of the hall houses owned by the Earl of Oxford and recently forming much of Godric’s Hollow in the Harry Potter films.”
I do not know the significance of Godric’s Hollow. My wife and daughter are very keen on “Harry Potter.” The email continues:
“The wider issue of the risk to our heritage across the county and the opportunity to use this current issue and the incident in Sudbury as the spur should only be grasped if it leads to the establishment of a county wide approach to diverting heavy goods traffic from ‘heritage’ villages and towns. We need to show a united and strategic front in the face of a problem shared across the county.”
Another resident of Lavenham, Mrs Simonetta Stonehouse, lives in one of the most beautiful houses on the High Street there. She recently wrote to me, saying:
“HGVs travelling through Lavenham High Street mount the pavement outside our house then negotiate the left turning into Water Street. I’m sure you are aware that the Swan Hotel”—
a famous and ancient hotel—
“has been damaged on numerous occasions, our property has also been hit. Houses on Water Street are regularly damaged and not so long ago a car was written off by a six-axle 44-tonne vehicle. It is not only the damage that these vehicles are doing to our medieval village but also the issue of safety to the residents and tourists.”
I was recently in Lavenham and witnessed an HGV of extraordinary proportions—I have never seen a lorry that big—attempting to go down Water Street, which is very narrow, although unfortunately technically an A road, which is part of the problem. The houses on it, including the house to which I referred, are beautiful and ancient. Lorries are scraping past them and tearing them to pieces, and it is incredibly sad to see. That is the heritage of the constituency that I represent, and I have come here to stand up for it and to find a way to protect it. Lavenham is also one of our biggest tourism draws, and I worry about the damage that could be done. Tourists do not come to villages to see massive HGVs go through them. The lorry on that occasion was an articulated lorry, but I am not sure how articulated the driver was.
Another village that is similarly ancient and has the same problem, and which probably creates as much correspondence for me, is Clare, a very pretty village on the Suffolk-Essex border. Only last week, I received the following email from a man called Bob Verguson, who did not know about this debate:
“We, the villages/residents along said A1092 Baythorne End to Long Melford road, require a stop to the 55 feet, 60-ton articulated lorries that are destroying our communities and infrastructure. The only lorries we should see in Clare are those delivering along the A1092 or along local side roads leading off the A1092, this is sadly not the case as approximately 92% of HGVs are passing through without stopping, merely using this road as a short cut…Clare alone has approximately 160 listed buildings”.
There is a pinch point in the village where lorries struggle to get through.
We see it all over the constituency. Nayland is another beautiful village near the Stour with the same problem, as are my two main market towns, Sudbury and Hadleigh. In Hadleigh, the problem is in Benton Street, which is narrow but is the main route by which my constituents access the A12 and Manningtree mainline station in order to get to London or Chelmsford. It has been a long-running problem. We thought that we might have solved it when I got Highways England to put new signage on the A12 to make clear the weight suitability and to say that HGVs should not use that route, but they continue to do so because of sat-nav, which is of course the same thing sending them down inappropriate roads in Lavenham.
I have had an email from a lady called Sue Monks, who lives on Benton Street. She makes a point about safety. In an incident two weeks ago,
“a resident on Benton Street had a car seat she was carrying knocked out of her arms by a passing vehicle whilst on the side of the pavement…Fortunately for her and us all, the seat was not occupied by a child.”
However, she emailed me the following day to confirm that there was a baby in it. Fortunately, it was a car and not an HGV. If it had been an HGV, I suspect that the event would have been tragic.
Finally, in Sudbury, the main market town in the constituency, a recent incident occurred at an intersection in a key retail part of my constituency. A lorry that should never have come down that road attempted the bend, severely damaging the frontage of a retail outlet selling ladies’ fashion. It is fair to say that in a town like that in a rural constituency, such things are a big deal. The incident occurred right next to the site of a major fire last summer, which was probably the biggest incident in my constituency since I was elected. It is demoralising for the town, and people want action to be taken.
I am not naive. I mentioned Harry Potter, but I know that there is no magic wand that can easily solve the problem. I have had frequent meetings with Suffolk County Council. Although we do not have Harry Potter, we have Councillor James Finch, who holds the transport portfolio for Suffolk. He is doing his best for the area. We are constantly considering what can be done, but there is one thing that the county council cannot control: sat-nav. My hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet has hit upon the nub of the problem. He mentioned the TomTom Trucker and other solutions. I would have thought that the industry could come up with a solution, given all the technology available; I am interested to hear from the Minister whether there is anything that the Government can do to force the industry’s hand.
All I can say is that, whatever steps my hon. Friend wants to take to raise the issue and to keep up the pressure—forming action groups or whatever—I will be more than happy to support him. I commend him for securing this debate and hope that we can find a way to keep HGVs out of these beautiful ancient villages and stop them damaging the infrastructure that is key to quality of life for our constituents.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Sir Alan. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) on securing this debate. He made an excellent speech covering a wide range of subjects, and I commend him for it.
When the hon. Gentleman apologised for the technical nature of the debate, I started wondering whether I was the right person to sum up on behalf of the Scottish National party, as I am a bit of a technophobe at times. However, it was good to hear about GPS and how all these things come together. He clearly understands the heart of the issue. It is an important constituency matter. I am not very familiar with the local geography of Kent, but when I looked at a map before coming to this debate, I promised myself to get back to the area. It has been a long time since I travelled through there—I was much younger—on my way to continental trips.
In terms of some of the examples that the hon. Gentleman gave, things in my constituency are not quite so intense, because where I come from we obviously do not have that level of traffic or any ports. However, there are some small villages in my constituency with issues involving the HGVs that traverse them, so I can empathise on that basis, although on a much smaller scale. Householders complain about vibrations and say that frequent HGVs loosen manhole covers, which seems trivial but becomes a regular noise issue and an irritant for residents nearby. It is another hidden consequence of heavy traffic that people do not realise. In my area, I have asked for improved signage to keep HGVs on motorways and the dual carriageway network, so we will see where that goes. It is a slightly different matter from sat-nav, but the hon. Gentleman also rightly spoke about signage appropriate for HGVs.
Other hon. Members made some good points as well. The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) highlighted how serious the issue is in his constituency, where the average is two incidents a week. The hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) taught me a wee bit more about Harry Potter. Likewise, I do not know much about Harry Potter, but it must be serious when a Harry Potter film set is being damaged. He quoted clear, important personal testimonies about how dangerous and concerning the issue can be for his constituents. He is absolutely right to highlight those. The hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) correctly spoke about the general stress and pressure suffered by his constituents as a consequence of this problem.
The hon. Member for South Thanet correctly spoke about the good and bad uses of sat-nav. If it is used properly, it is generally safer, as drivers are less likely to get lost. Equally, drivers can become too dependent on sat-nav. At one time, it was normal practice to check a map before setting out in order to understand the geography of the route. He cracked a joke about being a Luddite and going back to looking at maps, but there is definitely merit in looking at a map. It made me remember a time when it was commonplace to try to drive, look at signage and look at a map in the passenger seat, which is clearly not the safest means of driving either.
It seems from previous Government consultations and reactions that there has been a reluctance to legislate. I agree with the suggestion about decriminalisation and allowing local authorities to undertake civil penalties, which would allow much greater local control, local signage, local understanding and local action. It would resonate well with constituents, who would understand and who like to see their local representatives taking action.
Another potential issue that I have identified ties in with the high frequency and volume of foreign drivers going through hon. Members’ constituencies due to the international nature of ports. There is a skills gap in the UK HGV industry at the moment. The industry estimates there is a shortfall of some 50,000 drivers. If the skills gaps are not being filled in this country, that will result in the roads being used even more frequently by drivers less familiar with the geography.
It is interesting to hear foreign drivers and sat-navs talked about, although it is not all about sat-nav, as it happens. We in Southampton had to put in an engineered solution to prevent HGVs from going through a residential area. We had an expensive traffic regulation order and an expensive engineered solution, and within a couple of months a foreign driver following a sat-nav got stuck in the engineered solution that was there to prevent him going into the road. Is that something that the hon. Gentleman recognises?
It is not something that I have personal experience of, but it ties in with the points made by the hon. Member for South Thanet about the need to update the technology, to share data and perhaps to make it mandatory not to use out-of-date equipment. If someone is caught using out-of-date equipment or non-HGV-compliant equipment, it could be taken away, and that would solve the problem that the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen has identified.
I mentioned the shortage of skills in the HGV industry. Perhaps the Government could subsidise a training course and help to fill the skills shortage in the UK. I think that would lead to safer driving as well.
Again, I commend the hon. Member for South Thanet for securing this debate, which has been excellent. He has identified solutions to the problems, which is commendable because it is too easy to identify a problem but not advise how to address it. Given that not much seems to have happened on the back of previous Government consultations, which we are now some years on from, I urge the Minister to consider the sensible recommendations that could lead to substantial improvements.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) on securing this important debate. Before I address the points that have been made, it is worth recording that our thoughts are with the people of Brussels today. The security services have been bracing themselves for such an event—I guess all of us have—but when it does happen, it does not shock or affect us any less. This is a debate about transport and how we get about, and it is significant that today’s attack was about hitting the ways in which we get about. It was about hitting airports, metro stations, people trying to get to work, and people trying to see friends and families. We must have resolve, because it is no accident that terror tries to hit our ability to see each other, which is vital to society’s functioning. That is why terrorists must not succeed.
To return to the subject of today’s debate, the hon. Gentleman made some excellent points. He showed that he has a knowledge that well surpasses mine about, as he described it, the wizardry involved in GPS and other satellite navigation systems. Not only is he familiar with the high-tech end of it, but he was able to use the word “map”, which we do not do enough.
Other hon. Members made important points about the impact on their constituencies. The hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) mentioned something that I did not know about; he said that the problem has actually affected a Harry Potter set. If that is the case, it is certainly serious. The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) also made some really important points. I welcome the Minister to the debate. I know roads are not her normal area of responsibility, but I have no doubt that she will respond to the debate in detail. I have a sneaking suspicion that she might even say something about how this problem affects her own constituency.
Our freight and logistics sector keeps the shelves in our shops stocked, and, in a literal sense, drives economic growth. Our lorry drivers in particular deserve to be commended for that. There are not many other occupations in which someone’s place of work means they are unclear about where they are going to get their next meal, where they will next sleep, and even when they will next get to use the toilet. We have heard today about the chaos that has been caused in Sandwich and in other parts of the country, often due to the inappropriate use of the wrong kind of GPS systems, which can have far-reaching consequences not only in the south-east but across the country. The problem not only puts the health, welfare and safety of drivers at risk but, as we have heard, can be a blight on the lives of residents in urban and non-urban areas alike, on the experience of other road users and on businesses.
The problem reflects the much wider challenge of better connecting our roads and vehicles using technology. Technology and innovation are important keys to better, smarter, greener motoring and road transport. To achieve that, we have to get the system working together far better than it is at the moment through information sharing, and enforcement has a role too. We need to consider the wider factors that contribute to congestion everywhere. I will come on to the factors that specifically affect South Thanet and Kent.
We are talking now about sat-navs in HGVs, but eventually we will have driverless cars. That is the way we are going. All vehicles will depend on sat-navs, so does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is really important to sort this out sooner rather than later?
The hon. Gentleman makes a really important point. I say that with my other hat on, because as well as being shadow Transport Minister, I chair the all-party motor group. The expansion of technology in the automotive industry has made us talk about the extent to which information systems are attached to motor vehicles, but given the way things are now moving, it might be more accurate to talk about motor vehicles being attached to information systems. That could apply to other modes of transport as well.
Technology is certainly changing the game as far as safety standards in the freight sector are concerned. The quality of bespoke HGV sat-navs, where they are used, offers everything from digital route shaping and traffic updates to active lane guidance and HGV-tailored road information. That is a good thing, but given the sheer volume of HGV traffic passing through places such as Sandwich, it is clear that top-of-the-range HGV-specific sat-navs can be really important. The hon. Member for South Thanet was right to pay tribute to the Freight Transport Association for promoting the use of such systems, but not enough drivers rely on such equipment. Too many HGV firms and drivers rely on generic sat-navs or free-to-use options.
It is important that Ministers consider the extent to which drivers take up bespoke sat-navs and what can be done about that. As the hon. Gentleman said, there was a sat-nav summit in 2012—I cannot remember the name of it, but he mentioned it—and it was not clear what flowed from that. I am concerned about the apparent absence of objective targets or a means of assessing the take-up of bespoke systems, which makes it difficult to track progress. It will be important to work with sat-nav manufacturers and the other technical companies involved to improve the accuracy of all the systems on the market. That was started in 2006 under the previous Government, as I think he mentioned, but progress has not been as fast as it should have been and certainly has not kept pace with the technology.
As the hon. Gentleman said, lobbying for better data sharing with manufacturers was included in Kent County Council’s freight action plan of 2012. I have a question for the Minister about that. What are the Department and Highways England doing to support local authorities in their communications with mapping and technology companies, to ensure that lorry-appropriate routes are better ingrained in as many sat-navs as possible—hopefully in all of them? With better information on all map applications, we will go some way towards improving the spread of knowledge.
We also need to look at some of the wider factors that I have referred to. Highways England must play a leading role in promoting joined-up thinking between local authorities, the emergency services and others. Unfortunately, recent incidents on the M5 and M6, where there were avoidably long closures of the whole road, show that things are not up to scratch in that respect at the moment. Without such strong partnership working and live information sharing through road signage, HGV drivers will inevitably make their own decisions, including about diversions.
A second question for the Minister, therefore, is what lessons her Department has taken from recent motorway closures about improving live traffic updates and the management of such incidents. I ask that because of a worrying response that I received to a recent parliamentary question, from which it appears that only half of all local authorities have a major incidents contingency plan in place with Highways England, a year on from its establishment. Surely sorting that out should be one of its priorities. Can the Minister get to the bottom of that, or ask her departmental colleagues to do so? Will they also find out why in so many places a course of action has still not been established for managing HGV traffic and other road users in the event of a motorway closure?
It is important for local authorities to have plans, but also that they should have the resources to enforce them. In a written answer last July the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), made it clear that all other traffic management policies, including issues to do with HGVs and sat-nav devices,
“are the responsibility of local traffic authorities”
and the police. Does the Minister share my view that following last week’s critical Select Committee on Transport report on road traffic law enforcement, there is a need to think again about that approach? The report found that the reduction in the number of offences being recorded does not represent a reduction in the number that are actually being committed, and that if enforcement of road traffic laws is to be effective, the decline in the number of specialist road policing officers must be halted. I look forward to the Government’s response to that report.
Concerns about traffic enforcement bring me back to the specific enforcement issues and other factors that affect the south-east and Kent. During a recent visit to talk to businesses in Kent, I heard at first hand about the traffic chaos that accompanied 32 days of Operation Stack last year. It was made clear to me that support and assistance from central Government are essential. That echoed what the Opposition have been saying consistently: this is not just an issue for local authorities, the police and others in Kent. Keeping the roads clear through Kent is an issue of national importance, and the Government’s preparations should reflect that.
I was therefore astonished to read late last week a written answer from the Department for Transport confirming that the Home Office will not provide any additional funding to avert a repetition this year of last year’s chaos. That is despite the fact that the police and crime commissioner for Kent stated in a press release in August that the Government had given her assurances that funding would be available. My question to the Minister—if she does not have the answer today, perhaps she will ask her colleague the Roads Minister to write to me—is whether the PCC for Kent was wrong about the assurances she said she was given in August, or whether that was a broken Government promise.
The situation certainly does not bode well for this year. Ministers have not satisfied anyone about what they are doing in the short term to prevent a repetition this year of last year’s scenes. There are plans for lorry parks and for improvements to slip roads at junction 10a, but they will not help this year. They are for future years. Without additional central Government assistance, it seems that the region is being left to handle congestion on its own. It cannot be said that last year was exceptional. HGVs are already being turned away from existing lorry parks, so how likely is it that the effect will be drivers rerouting back along roads and parking at inappropriate places? I asked the Roads Minister about his action plan for that in Transport questions recently, and I did not get any clear answers.
That issue is relevant to the debate, because the key point is how we ensure that traffic keeps moving through Kent. What is the Department doing to ensure that all road users, particularly HGV drivers arriving at cross-channel ports, know where to find the live traffic information they need, particularly at times of major snarl-ups such as the summer months? If there is a particular problem with drivers coming in from across the channel, how is the Department working with other countries, and road haulage companies in those countries, to make sure that all HGV drivers know of the routing restrictions in the south-east? How can technology be used to assist in that process as quickly as possible? Is Highways England reviewing again any short-term management techniques such as contraflow, with more notice for people to prepare, so that safety concerns can be addressed? Have the Department and Highways England talked to ferry companies about making the best use of their capacity in the event of lengthy episodes of congestion?
It is clear that the GPS problem that the hon. Member for South Thanet has rightly raised today exists not only in his area but throughout the country. It is an important issue that ties in closely with fundamental questions about the Government’s wider policies on HGVs and traffic management. They have serious questions to answer about technology and about how they can get hold of the problem. How can they expect existing laws and rules to be enforced if local authorities and the police do not have the necessary resources? How proactively will they promote the partnership working between local authorities, the police and the private sector that all hon. Members know is vital, particularly when we know that even on the issue of major incident contingency plans, Highways England has not yet reached agreement with more than half of the local authorities involved? There are serious questions to answer about the specific factors of congestion in the south-east that I have mentioned today, but there are wider issues as well, and I hope that the Minister will clarify some of them. Doing nothing is clearly not an option.
It is as always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I associate myself with the remarks of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) about what has shocked many of us in the transport world today. I happened to be giving a speech to a delegation from the Chinese airport authorities as the news came through, and it focused us once again on the issue of security. We are all vulnerable, across the country, and I pride myself on the work that our police forces, special forces and citizens do in keeping us safe. I know our thoughts and prayers are with those affected today.
My goodness, Sir Alan; we might have thought this would be a very dry debate, going by the title, but we have heard all sorts of things. We have heard an expert description of the GPS service, for which I am grateful. We have learned that the original barbican is actually in Sandwich. We have heard about the village of Clare—I feel a visit coming on; Claire for Clare strikes me as very exciting. We have heard about Godric’s Hollow and about TomTom Truckers, which sounds to some of us like a rather unsavoury form of specialty video, but there we are. It has been an interesting and informative debate, and I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) for doing his research and bringing in so many interesting points.
The SNP spokesman, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), showed up well briefed as always. I appreciated his comments about looking at maps. The shadow spokesman, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield, knows the subject of the debate inside out, but I was the Minister responsible for road freight in the previous Parliament, so I have some knowledge of the sector. Indeed, I was very proud of the work that we did in trying to reduce some of the burden of red tape on an industry that is, as he said, absolutely vital to the smooth running of the economy. It is a logistics sector in which we lead the world in many ways. As my hon. Friends will know, these are often small businesses with slim margins, and anything we can do to make them run more effectively is important.
As my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet pointed out, satellite navigation is becoming a ubiquity in our transport journeys. It is a defining innovation; we are all very reliant upon it. It allows people to move around much more easily and much more effectively. Indeed, according to the AA, drivers using sat-nav travel 16% fewer miles and spend 18% less time at the wheel than drivers without such systems.
I, on the other hand, have a sneaking sympathy for what the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun talked about. I like to get out my maps, plot the cross-country journeys and actually work out which way is north. That is not just because I was a geography student at university. Britain led the world in map making and mapping different continents, and it is a skill that we must not lose. As my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) pointed out, with technological innovations such as driverless vehicles and HGV platooning, there is a chance that the whole system will become dependent on the accuracy of the information being put into such systems and that makes the issue that we are debating even more important.
Although we directly associate satellite navigation with in-vehicle driving guidance, of course there are enormous applications in terms of aviation, fleet management and logistics. Indeed, on the railway, the use of GPS technology, both for managing train movements and for providing more information to customers, is an area of extraordinary innovation.
I turn now to some of the questions around sat-navs, HGVs and what the Government have been thinking and doing. It is in no one’s interest for HGV drivers to make the wrong decision or to rely on inaccurate information. We heard tellingly and powerfully this afternoon what happens when things go wrong: tight corners; historic houses; and congestion. We have all seen the jack-knifed lorry that tried to get through the tight road bridge. Indeed, in my own constituency, we had an almost tragic incident when a large lorry tried to get across a bridge and knocked a piece of masonry on to the mainline track between London and the west country. It was only because of a lot of very quick thinking on behalf of the train crew that an accident was avoided.
Consequently, we have been very assiduous in this area, particularly in linking freight associations, local authorities and sat-nav companies to ensure that responsible HGV drivers are aware of the issue and have the latest information available to them. Indeed, properly equipped lorry drivers now have the tools to avoid low bridges and narrow lanes, and of course that saves them fuel, time and money. No lorry driver wants to be sitting there blocking a village street; that is not a pleasant experience for anyone. Therefore, as we have heard, there are specialist sat-navs that assist.
Neither central Government nor individual local authorities have direct powers over the routing of sat-nav devices, but sat-nav companies and users can help to ensure that they have appropriate routes by ensuring that their device maps are up to date. I confess that my hybrid vehicle had an in-dashboard sat-nav and I do not think that I ever once updated the maps. I hold my hand up in shame now as I say that. That was, of course, before my ministerial career and making that admission might actually be the end of it. There is an element of personal responsibility and indeed corporate responsibility to make sure that the maps are up to date.
Of course, the routing guidance is only ever advisory. Motorists, including HGV drivers, are responsible for determining the best route for their journey and for determining whether there are appropriate road conditions, even if a route is signposted as being appropriate and open. Drivers are responsible, of course, for ensuring that they follow routes that are legal—that they do not breach height or weight limits, which are set and enforced by local highway authorities and the police.
I have some sympathy—again, based on the experience of my own constituency—about the ping-pong there can be between a local authority and the highways agency as to who is responsible for signage on a particular road and the consequences of re-signing a particular road, which may push congestion over the border into another constituency or on to other roads that are less suitable, so it is not a trivial exercise to get the signage right. Clearly, however, when it is done, it can work.
What we must not ignore is the ability of GPS data to provide such an enormous level of innovation, both in transport and logistics, and in society in general. On trying to mandate specific technologies, such as commercial sat-navs or other route guidance systems, that is difficult. In my view, the heavy hand of Government mandating anything in the technological space tends to act as a drag on innovation, and by the time we have tried to solve one problem the world has moved on and we are all using entirely different systems or devices. My hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet referred to other competing global systems that may well be operational within the next few years and it would be a difficult process then to start that conversation with those specific road users.
The Government still believe that the private sector remains best placed to develop new products and services, and the market—sensibly regulated—should determine whether those succeed. However, I also want to pay tribute to organisations such as the Freight Transport Association, because there are very responsible industry bodies out there that work with Government and local authorities and that are absolutely committed to making sure that their members are using the most appropriate systems. It is important that we continue to improve those communications and that co-operation to ensure that everyone is using the right technology and equipment.
There is an Act—the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions Act 2002—that equips highway authorities to apply warnings and restrictions to the parts of the local network that they manage where they feel it is appropriate for HGVs to avoid using inappropriate routes. As I have mentioned, that can be a complicated exercise, but it is important. One of the things that the last Government were proud of doing was making it easier for local communities to do things such as applying particular speed limits and putting up signage to give communities the ability to manage their road conditions more appropriately.
There is more work happening. The Government are taking direct action now to improve the quality and sharing of transport data; £3 million has been dedicated to create a digital road map that will enable better data sharing between local authorities and service providers. The map is being developed by the Ordnance Survey and it will be launched later this year. It will include information such as road widths, traffic calming measures, and height and weight restrictions, which could then be linked to other public sector data sets, such as planned road works and cycle paths.
Unlike some of the Ordnance Survey data in the past, I believe that this will be open data, so it can be taken up by the various providers of information to the mapping companies, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet pointed out. It is a really important step forward to take Ordnance Survey data, which is of very high quality, and to put it on to the existing digital maps, which in some cases are not of particularly high quality or not particularly detailed about local conditions. I think that this has big potential to improve the quality and accuracy of the routing advice offered by sat-navs, as well as to cut bureaucracy.
Obviously, I agree with the Minister about not wanting to regulate if we do not need to, and I am aware of the point about signs. However, my experience is that signs often do not work with HGVs. If, as the years progress, we continue to have these problems, if the signage is not stopping them and if we have these villages and areas that are being damaged by HGVs that, if you like, are abusing routes because of sat-nav, do the Government have any power to intervene with sat-nav companies to try to ensure that they can guide lorries on to the correct routes?
I do not believe that we have the statutory power to do so currently. Again, this is one of those slightly concerning paths down which to go, but I can certainly look to see whether anything has ever been proposed for the statute book on that basis. We talk about technology, but it is not in anyone’s interests, including those of a fleet manager, to have an HGV trying to force itself down a road. It will be entirely obvious if an HGV is trying to do that long before the problem arises and any responsible fleet manager would then communicate with that driver and say, “Where do you think you’re going? This is absolutely not appropriate.” Again, I think that we need to use the technology as the solution to some of these issues, while recognising the problems related to the technology.
The Minister is right that there is no easy or off-the-shelf solution to this problem, but it seems to me that the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) made an important point that is worth considering. While it may not be appropriate to make the use of satellite navigation systems mandatory inside HGVs, if HGVs have a system in operation, should they not be required to have one that is fit for purpose, so that this becomes a compliance issue to do with having the right kind of system, rather than making it mandatory to have a system in the first place?
The hon. Gentleman’s points are often very sensible but, in my mind, they can also often lead to a sort of slightly dystopian world of lots of checks and balances, with organisations set up to do in-cab checks, and that is entirely what we do not want to deliver. What we want is an industry that believes in being responsible and has the tools to do so.
The point my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet made about having a little lorry symbol come up, in the same way as a car, or in my case a bicycle, symbol comes up is brilliant. The new technology—the open mapping system—will enable that. What I have instructed my officials to do—rather cheekily, as they no longer work directly for me—is to ensure that the Freight Transport Association and other bodies are given every opportunity to see the mapping process, consider how they might use it and exercise their powers to make recommendations—as has been mentioned, they have a recommended list of sat-navs. I would like them to be involved and, indeed, that offer applies cross-party to any hon. Member here—it is open to anyone who wants to see the information and be involved. This is a really important step forward in solving many of the problems about which we are all concerned.
It does not stop there. The road investment strategy sets out, finally, a long-term investment strategy for roads. That is so important. It includes a £150 million ring-fenced innovation fund that enables Highways England to develop technologies, including sat-nav, and approaches for a smoother, smarter and more sustainable road network. There is an element of driverless and co-operative vehicle technologies, and of improving the information and data that help drivers to plan their journeys.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield made a fair point about what happens when roads are closed. I think that we were all surprised by what happened. With my rail hat on I can say that any delays like the ones he mentioned would have led to outrage among rail passengers across the country and demands for compensation. Somehow, we often accept that roads are closed, and there are lessons to be learned perhaps from other parts of the infrastructure.
A traffic information strategy developed by Highways England was published in January 2016. It sets out how the agency will work more closely with local authorities to integrate journey planning across the network and improve communications. I am aware, of course, that the Office of Rail Regulation now includes an element of road regulation and I would like to ask my officials to check whether the duty to inform—the duty to work with local authorities—is part of the office’s statutory powers.
The Highways England strategy also focuses on further development of the Traffic England website as a trusted source of information for road users in planning their journeys, and on sharing data from the National Traffic Operations Centre so that there is real-time information.
In conclusion, this debate is fascinatingly important and relevant to us all, in all our constituencies no matter where they are. I hope that some of my points have reassured my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet that the Government are absolutely committed to working more closely with the private sector and that there is real money backing that commitment. I invite all hon. Members to review the £3 million digital road map when it is perhaps in beta format, to see how we could encourage road haulage associations in our constituencies to take advantage of the new technology.
I am delighted to respond to that. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We had an influx of HGV drivers from other parts of the world and many of them returned there when the economy turned down. It has, therefore, been a challenge to recruit and retain drivers. There is ongoing work into what could be done to make the cost of training more acceptable, for example. As the only lady in the room who represents a constituency, may I say that women do not want to be long-distance drivers partly because some of the rest facilities are absolutely atrocious? I have encouraged many HGV companies to realise—indeed the responsible ones do—that there is an enormous talent pool of people out there, for whom long-distance driving could be an appropriate career but who will not do it if they have to relieve themselves behind a bush at a rest stop. Raising the terms and conditions and working practices of many parts of the industry could attract non-traditional drivers to what is an important and growing part of the British economy.
I thank you, Sir Alan, for your excellent chairmanship. It would have been nice to have a few more Members with us, but there is activity elsewhere. It would be stretching it to think that I will speak for a further 15 minutes—I will not delay Members for that long—but I will make some comments about the excellent contributions made.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) laid out very well the damage to the fabric of our great nation that we face from many HGVs being inappropriately used. My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) added a road safety dimension to the debate. Road safety is key, particularly at peak times when children are out of school. My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) mentioned that, even though we do substantial road improvements or have restrictions in order to do engineered solutions, those are overcome by the automaton-like, slavish adherence to the voice that comes out of the machine—I think we are all prone to that.
I am grateful that the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) took part in the debate. I am not sure whether the shortage of drivers in the UK is relevant to the core of the debate, but we do have a shortage of available drivers as the HGV industry in this country is growing at all times and the volume of HGV traffic is only increasing. That gets to the heart of why the problem we face with sat-nav use is so relevant. I very much thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), who brought to the debate a high level of knowledge about various aspects of the road industry.
Turning to my hon. Friend the Minister, I was very encouraged that there was an area I did not know about. I go away with some additional technical knowledge, that Ordnance Survey is spending £3 million on open source mapping, which could be vital to further improving the quality of data available to mapping companies. Underneath all of the systems, no matter whether they are nomadic or on personal digital assistants or smartphones, is the fundamental map data.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen mentioned the potential for driverless cars, which are much in the news. I would not like to think about how driverless HGVs in Sandwich might get on—we will come to that, perhaps, in 10 years’ time. I think that we stand here today in awe of some of the technology that we do not really understand but regularly use, and on the concept of driverless cars, we can foresee the potential for companies going across every road, accumulating data such as widths and heights, and then feeding it back almost immediately into a database system and updating maps almost in real time.
I understand the concerns about more overbearing legislation. I am not for that; markets can decide things effectively and rather more rapidly that Governments. But the plea, I think, from the Chamber this afternoon to the manufacturers of the nomadic devices and the software is that they please put on that little lorry symbol. I realise that that would be a commercial decision, because the same machine for HGV use is often sold for three times the price, but it would solve, at a stroke, many of the problems. We understand that no HGV driver wants to be caught down that small road or to be hitting that bridge or historic building—that is a given—and that additional button could relieve many of the problems.
I thank hon. Members for taking part in the debate, and I thank you, Sir Alan, for your forbearance.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered GPS satellite navigation and heavy goods vehicles.