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Unadopted Roads: New Housing Estates

Volume 723: debated on Thursday 1 December 2022

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Fay Jones.)

I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting me this Adjournment debate on unadopted roads and the lack of facilities for new housing estates.

I know that new housing can be a controversial issue. Some of the biggest issues in my constituency relate to general practice capacity and police numbers not increasing sufficiently in line with the building of thousands of new homes. I want everyone to be well housed in well-designed communities with, crucially, adequate local facilities. I am sure we would all agree that safe roads to drive on, speed restrictions, traffic calming, street lights, pedestrian crossings, parking enforcement, and litter, dog and grit bins, and regular collections from them, are all things we have a right to expect in England and Wales in 2022. Asking for them is not asking the earth.

Yet the current position is that many hundreds of thousands of our constituents do not have those basic amenities, which those of us who are lucky enough to live on adopted roads take for granted. As I will argue, the lack of street lights, parking enforcement, pedestrian crossings, pavements, and speeding restrictions make living extremely dangerous at times for those residents. Unadopted roads are subject to surface drainage issues, leading to a higher risk of flooding, and mortgage lenders sometimes withdraw funds from prospective buyers if a road is not adopted.

This is such an important debate. My hon. Friend highlights the issue of drainage. May I draw the Minister’s attention to the situation at Knights Meadow in North Baddesley in my constituency? The drainage there has been designed outside the parameters of adoptability by the drainage authority, so there is no chance of the highway above the drain being adopted either. We are left in the horrendous situation whereby the homeowners can expect no solution to it, while having to cope in the meantime with sub-standard facilities, roads and drains.

On the last visit I did with Anglian Water in my constituency, I learned that water companies are not actually statutory consultees in new planning applications. The good local authorities talk to the water companies, but in my view, the companies should be statutory consultees, to avoid exactly the issue that my right hon. Friend raises.

On the safety issue, are we going to let the situation continue like this until—God forbid—a child gets killed? Road safety is a real issue, as I will illustrate. The Fletcher Road estate in south Gloucestershire is not adopted, and the traffic regulation order to bring in a 20 mph zone will not come in until the entire estate is complete, which could take 10 years. Last year, a child was seriously injured on the estate, and the accident safety report concluded that if the road had been properly constructed, and had speed humps, surfacing and a 20 mph limit, it would have been safe.

The Levelling Up Secretary has quite rightly used his righteous anger to make massive progress on dealing with the cladding issue and, most recently, with the mould issue. My request to him is to make it a hat-trick on behalf of hundreds of thousands of people who are paying full council tax without basic facilities, many of which are designed to keep them safe. During the American war of independence, the cry went up, “No taxation without representation.” Why is it that we require residents on new estates to pay full council tax while receiving very much less than full council services? Many residents are now paying twice for identical services. On the Castle Mead estate in Wiltshire, residents will pay the equivalent of band D town council tax to a management company to use the open spaces around their homes, while still paying full council tax. That does not seem fair or right.

The last full survey of unadopted roads was conducted by the Department for Transport in 1972, when it was estimated that there were 40,000 unadopted roads in England and Wales, covering some 4,000 miles of road. It is very concerning we do not have figures for the situation today.

Let me take the Minister on a tour around my constituency. On Theedway in Leighton Buzzard, three street lights do not work—all close to an assisted living residence where many people have mobility issues—and there is no parking enforcement or road signage. All that is dangerous. In nearby Copia Crescent, one street light is on 24/7 while the other is broken. Local residents do not know which developer to go to for these issues to be fixed. In nearby Grebe Drive, Goldfinch Road and Fraserfields Way, residents report dangerous speeding, no traffic calming, no speed enforcement and churned up verges. One householder is having difficulty selling his property because his road is not adopted, so we are making people’s main asset more illiquid and reducing the ease with which they can move. Properties in Clay Furlong and Claridge Close were sold in 2003—when the first residents moved in—but nearly 20 years later, the roads have still not been adopted. That is simply not good enough.

In Dunstable, the residents of Harvey Road have never had street lighting, and they have to navigate round potholes—that situation has gone on since at least 1961. A resident of a new estate being built at Tilling Green in Dunstable tells me that she has no street lights and that parking on junctions is extremely dangerous. She has had no reply from her management company about those issues. A constituent from the new Eleanor Gardens development in Dunstable tells me that Taylor Wimpey told her that it had handed the estate over to the council, while Central Bedfordshire Council said that it was unable to help because the handover had not happened. Homeowners—with all their pride and excitement about their new homes—have been left in the lurch again, not knowing where to turn to have multiple problems sorted out.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and I assure you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I do not intend to intervene all afternoon. My hon. Friend makes an important point about homeowners not knowing where to go. They assume they should go to the council, but then find that the road is unadopted. They then assume they should go to the developer, but then find that a management company was set up and that, in many cases—such as for several estates in my constituency—it simply does not respond.

In a typically insightful intervention, my right hon. Friend makes exactly the right point. If she is able to stay until the end of my speech, I will outline a number of potential solutions that I am excited about. There are things we can do that do not require money and may not even require legislation, and which would make a difference. I am not just outlining the problems; I am coming up with solutions, which is what we in this place are here to do, is it not?

Bidwell West—a huge new area in my constituency—has all those issues. They were first brought to my attention by a young couple from Centurion Way who are proud of their new home and want to be proud of the area they live in. They came to see me in my surgery in June to ask for litter bins. The adoption manager from Linden Homes would not even agree to speak to me when I raised the issue with the company. The leader of Central Bedfordshire Council told me that some developers have in the past worked with the council to install and empty litter bins before the roads are adopted. If some developers can do that, why can’t all of them?

A mother from Bidwell West tells me that her nine-year-old daughter is scared to walk to school because there are no pedestrian crossings. There have already been numerous head-on crashes on her new estate because of the lack of signage and speed restrictions. There are now large potholes appearing in some of the roads, and the lack of lighting is dangerous for dog walkers and another pedestrians on these dark winter evenings.

A resident from the Kyngshouton estate, north of Houghton Regis, tells me that Persimmon indicated to purchasers that the roads would be adopted by the local authority, but five years later, that has not happened. The residents pay for council tax and a service charge to a management company where the majority of directors are Persimmon staff, and despite the residents having been told that there would be a director election process, that has not been forthcoming. Why should the residents have to pay twice? They also believe they could do a better job running the management company than the Persimmon directors. My hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) has told me that at Holyoakes Field First School there are no road markings and no parking near the school, resulting in children and parents having to walk on the road, which is extremely dangerous.

I am particularly indebted to the briefing I have received for this debate from the Reverend Tim Haines, the pioneer community worker for Bidwell West. He points out that on new developments it is not clear who is responsible for what—the very point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) has just made—and that at the very least we need a stakeholders working group, comprising builders, housing associations, landowners, the local authority and residents. Every developer with a responsibility for street lights and so on should have a named, available point of contact for residents and council officers to contact.

I am grateful to the Local Government Association, the National Association of Local Councils and the Home Builders Federation for the briefing they have provided to me for this debate. I am optimistic that a better future can be created, but it will need the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to take a lead and establish best practice requirements with penalties for failure to comply.

Some local authorities report that developers start building a road before entering into the section 38 agreement or try to vary the terms of the local highway authority’s section 38 agreement. In other cases, the developers may build a road very slowly and not finish it or not build the road up to the local highway authority standards. The sewerage authority may also take time to adopt the sewers under the new road. The road may be finished, but there could be outstanding construction defects that the developer needs to fix, such as defective street lights, potholes, overgrown verges or broken drain covers.

The Home Builders Federation notes the unacceptable inconsistency between local highway authorities, with inspection fees varying between 5% and 15% of the bond value and the length of time between a technical submission and technical approval for both section 278 and section 38 agreements varying between one week and one year. The Home Builders Federation requests that costs imposed on it by local highway authorities be reasonable and consistent, and that the process for technical approval and legal engrossment be simple, effective, rapid, trackable and measurable—all very reasonable demands. It asks that councils do not seek betterment schemes over and above the engrossed legal agreement, so preventing adoption as a result.

I want the Department to take a lead on this issue and deliver significant improvement in how we provide roads on new estates with the associated facilities that are critical to prevent our constituents from being exposed to danger. I say again that that danger could lead to loss of life.

In Wales, a good practice guide has been adopted, to which local highway authorities and house building federations have signed up. At the pre-application stage, the highway authority is involved. If five or more properties are served by public highways, the highway authority serves an advance payments code notice on the developer within six weeks of building approval. Once the notice has been served, works cannot commence without a bond being in place, equivalent to the total cost of construction of roads as estimated by the highway authority. During this period, a section 38 agreement can be negotiated, or ideally it is done even sooner.

My plea to the Minister is to take the learning and evaluation of what has happened in Wales and to build on that for England, and to take the sensible points made by local authorities and the Home Builders Federation to get agreed and enforceable national standards, and to do so with speed and determination.

I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) for so powerfully articulating his constituents’ and many other constituents’ concerns regarding unadopted roads. He talked about constituents who are often paying full council tax but are forced to live on private roads riddled with potholes and devoid of basic necessities such as streetlights, road signs or litter bins. My right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) also raised the matter of Knights Meadow, which is causing concerns. I believe we all can agree that, irrespective of whether a housing estate is old or new, no one should be forced to live on a street that is so poorly maintained that it negatively impacts their quality of life.

First, I will directly respond to the recommendations that my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire has made, especially in relation to section 278 and section 38 agreements, as well as the guidance in Wales to which he referred. Then I would like to identify some of the steps that the Government are already taking to strengthen the enforcement powers of local authorities and to make sure that roads are properly maintained. Then I will address some of the broader points raised by my hon. Friend.

I take this opportunity to reassure my hon. Friend that I am committed to working with him and Members across this House to make sure that we can find the right solutions to the problems he has highlighted. I am not only happy to, but would be delighted to meet him and share the benefits of his research and expertise and to discuss this issue in more depth so that we can find the right answers to these questions.

Turning now to my hon. Friend’s recommendations, he mentioned that in Wales a good practice guide has been adopted by local highway authorities and house building federations. He noted that in the pre-application stage, the highway authority is involved. If five or more properties are served by public highways, the highway authority serves an advance payments code notice on the developer within six weeks of building approval.

In England, the Department for Transport has issued clear and simple guidance to councils to help them navigate some of the complexities surrounding new developments and the adoption, maintenance and upkeep of roads. They can use that guidance in those initial conversations with developers before a road is built, and long before they become major headaches for parties, not least homeowners themselves.

The Department for Transport also published an advice note in 2017 on road adoption and made some significant updates to it in August this year, with some useful advice on bonds and fees. I would be happy and keen to talk to my hon. Friend about how we can further improve on this work that the DFT has done.

My right hon. and learned Friend makes an important point about the guidance that the DFT has already published and given to major house builders. The point I want to make is that as in the case of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), the developers in my constituency are major house builders. These are people who should have had this guidance over many years and who know how to build roads of an adoptable standard. Will my right hon. and learned Friend use the considerable heft of her Department to summon them in and suggest that they start using the guidance already available to them?

My right hon. Friend makes a very valuable point, and I would also be very keen to speak to her on this issue, because she clearly has the same issues in her constituency, as we all do, and is very interested in this point. We do raise many issues with house builders, and I can add this to the list to raise, because it is important that the guidance is followed and that we get solutions.

My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire suggested that England needs more national standards. As he knows, under the Highways Act 1980, section 38 agreements allow new roads built by developers to become public highways, with the cost of maintenance falling to the public purse. It is certainly possible for local highways authorities to adopt streets for which they are not currently responsible, but this is usually agreed at local level, not national level, between the developer and the council. It is true that councils can use section 38 to step in if a developer fails to keep its promises regarding a new road or street. The legislation already gives highways authorities the power to do that, but there is no legal obligation on them to do so, so ultimately it is a question for the relevant council. I understand that the Department for Transport’s position is that it does not intervene in operational issues, and that it does not have powers to make statutory or impose national standards. That said, I do think it is important we continue to discuss this issue to ascertain what more can be done.

It is worth saying that the local highways authority cannot of course always adopt a road on a new development each and every time, not least because that may not be what residents themselves want. The road may also be incomplete or not built to the right standard, and the drainage may not yet have been adopted by the appropriate body. For whatever reason, when a road is not adopted by the local highway, liability for maintenance automatically falls to those who own the properties facing the road. What that looks like may vary depending on the housing development, but by and large estate rent charges are the main way in which residents pick up the tab for a road’s maintenance. The problem arises when homeowners are unexpectedly slapped with bills to maintain roads they did not even know they were responsible for and, worse, when they challenge the estate rent charges, they find that they have limited rights to do anything about it.

I am aware that some unadopted roads go back decades and decades, but it does concern me that in a major new development on the east of Leighton Buzzard in my constituency, where residents moved in only in 2003, the roads are still not adopted. It is 20 years later, and I really think it is entirely reasonable that the people buying those homes would think that these issues would have been sorted out by the developer with the agreement of the local authority. Does the Minister get the importance of these issues not just dragging on and on, and the need for quite swift resolution?

I do totally understand the point. As a local MP, I have worked with developers and streets to get to the position where roads are adopted so that the local authority can take over. I totally understand the point my hon. Friend is making, and I look forward to the conversations we will have about how we can address this further.

Coming back to the estate rent charges, we and the Government recognise that this is a real concern for homeowners, and we are actually tackling it. We intend to legislate to give freeholders on private and mixed-tenure estates the equivalent rights of leaseholders, which means they will be able to directly challenge unfair estate rent charges. For the first time, they will be able to apply to the first-tier tribunal to appoint a new manager who can better handle the estate rent charges and is more responsive to what residents want, because as my hon. Friend said in his speech, they sometimes think they can do this better than the developers or agencies themselves.

My hon. Friend also talked about his concerns when developers fail to build roads to adoptable standards. When that happens, we want councils to take the toughest possible enforcement action. This is where the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, which is currently going through this House, has a pivotal role to play in strengthening the hand of councils. Our reforms will remove the current four-year time limit that applies to some breaches; in future, it will be 10 years for all breaches of planning control. We are also doubling the maximum period of temporary stop notices from 28 to 56 days, and at the same time we are focused on closing existing loopholes that let developers obtain planning permission after a breach has occurred.

May I just ask the Minister whether any of those powers will apply retrospectively, or is this just going forward? Will my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and I still be dealing with a 20-year-old case in his constituency and one that has certainly been rumbling on for 10 years in mine when the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill has passed?

I am very happy to get back to my right hon. Friend, but I assume that in any event the maximum is 10 years for a breach of the planning controls.

Very briefly on that specific point, we have existing problems, but my question is whether the new legislation will act retrospectively to tackle the existing problems, or is this only going to solve future problems that have not yet occurred in developments yet to be built?

I am very happy to get back to my right hon. Friend on that specific point, but we do recognise that if developers flout the rules and breach conditions they will also run the risk of being hit with unlimited fines.

The status quo is that when a new development is granted planning permission, councils can use section 106 planning obligations to make sure developers build roads to an adoptable standard. It is important to stress that when residents have a complaint about the local planning and highways authority that has not been adequately resolved, they can also complain to the local government and social care ombudsman.

I want to finish by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire and my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North for securing and taking part in this debate. It is an important issue, and we in the Government do not underestimate for a second the misery that unadopted roads can inflict on our residents. Be in no doubt that we get it that poorly constructed, poorly maintained and poorly funded roads and street lights blight neighbourhoods, erode people’s pride in the place they live and, ultimately, can ruin lives. Where loopholes have been exploited, councils have been lacking enforcement powers and homebuyers have found themselves powerless to challenge unfair bills, we are already changing the law to put things right. I am very grateful for the constructive thoughts of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire on where there is further room for improvement, and I look forward to further conversations.

We are committed to working with councils, the housing industry and hon. Members from both sides of the House to raise the bar on the quality and safety of roads and streets in all developments, and to level up communities by ensuring that vital infrastructure and services are right there on the door step when they are needed. That is our ambition, and that is what we are determined to do.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.