My Lords, I am delighted by that Answer. I think it would be the first time in 18 years that the Government had done this. When we set out the relevant legislation and the secondary legislation that goes with it, we were careful to specify exactly what signs and lines should be used, both on the grounds of safety and to ensure that people understood, wherever they came from and wherever they found themselves, what those signs and lines meant. Is the Minister aware of the extent to which these rules are disregarded, and that if he walks out of this palace he will find examples of flagrant disregard within 100 yards or so? Is he also aware that disregard of the regulations in places like Sunderland has gone as far as creating real dangers to pedestrians and other users of the road? Does he not think that it is time the Government used the powers that they have been given to keep councils in line?
My Lords, I am sure that the whole House admires the noble Lord for the zeal of his campaigning on this and other issues; he asked a number of questions along these lines before. By virtue of Section 64 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984, the majority of traffic signs in Great Britain are prescribed by the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions. As I said in my Answer, the Act gives the Secretary of State power to direct a highway authority to remove traffic signs, and, where an authority fails to do so, to carry out the work himself and recover the cost from the authority. As the noble Lord says, however, these reserve powers have never been used because we take the view that it is far more appropriate for local and highway authorities to take the responsibility for this; it is impossible for the Department for Transport to police road signs over the whole country. It would be in only the most exceptional circumstances that the Secretary of State would consider using these powers.
In the case of Sunderland there is a legal issue under way, but the Government Office of the North East has advised Sunderland council that restrictions imposed by zigzag markings apply to lay-bys as well as the main carriageway, which I believe is at the heart of the issue in Sunderland to which the noble Lord refers.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is particularly unhelpful when signs on the roads themselves wear out and are not renewed quickly enough? Will he encourage prosecuting authorities to bear in mind that any prosecutions in those circumstances would probably fail and indeed are probably illegal?
My Lords, does not the existence of large numbers of road signs on roadways, particularly at junctions, serve only to confuse the motorist, who can absorb only so much information? Should not many of those signs be removed? Perhaps we need a little regulation here.
A national traffic signs review is under way, which was launched in September 2008. It involves all of the interested parties such as the county surveyors, Transport for London, the Highways Agency and the enforcement agencies. Its purpose is to consider how the traffic regulations are provided, and it will seek to simplify the regime. I hope very much that when that report is implemented, some time next year, it will meet the point that my noble friend makes.
We on these Benches believe that the maintenance of road signs is a matter for local authorities, and we would not seek central direction to apply to it. However, the local authorities are very short of money. Can the Minister tell me how many local authorities have taken advantage of the opportunities which exist to impose special parking area restrictions and to decriminalise a lot of acts, so that they get the money and then have it to spend on the road signs?
I very much welcome the noble Lord’s support for the Government’s approach; this is a matter for local authorities and highways authorities. I am able to answer his question; so far, out of a total of 327 local authorities, 265 English local authorities have civil parking enforcement powers.
My Lords, we are aware of the concerns that blind and partially sighted people have about shared space. We are investigating those concerns and producing advice to local authorities on how to overcome them. Comprehensive research is at present being conducted into the matter; if I may, I shall send the noble Lord the appraisal report that has just been published. I should be grateful for his views on that as well.