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ANPR and Width Restrictions

Volume 691: debated on Tuesday 23 March 2021

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

I wanted to secure this Adjournment debate because of an issue that originated in Woodmere Avenue in my constituency but which has highlighted a more national issue associated with section 6 powers under the Traffic Management Act 2004. I feel a bit odd, because I have introduced a ten-minute rule Bill today, so, a bit like it is for the Minister, two buses have arrived at once for me today. This is my second long speech, but I will try not to make it too long.

I wanted to raise this issue for three reasons. First, I would like to highlight the issues with Woodmere Avenue in my constituency, the concerns of residents and why those are important. My second point is about the use of section 6, which I think could solve some of the issues in my local area, and I will highlight some broader issues. My third point is about the critical importance of the power of local people to have control and a say in what happens to them in their local area.

I will start with Woodmere Avenue. The issue with Woodmere Avenue began for me when I was campaigning way before I was an MP. I had been out with a local campaigner called Carly Bishop, who had petitioned and spoken to local residents about issues in this area. Let me describe the situation. A width restriction has been in Woodmere Avenue in the Tudor ward of Watford for decades, and it is known as a bit of a landmark, but not in a positive way. There is a massive bus route through the middle of the road, and on either side there are width restrictions for cars. Increasingly, I hear people say that they have scratched their car recently or over the past few years on those restrictions. It does not feel right that somebody trying to drive to work in the morning, pick up their kids from school or just go to the shops should be worried about damaging their car en route because of the way that a width restriction was designed many decades ago.

The issue, for me, is about fairness. There is a whole debate that could be unpicked about the decisions that were made many years ago, why this has not changed and why petitions have not enabled change, but I do not want to get into a blame game. For me, this is about how we look forward and make a difference. When I was discussing this with local residents and the local council, I found that one potential solution is the use of automatic number plate recognition. It was highlighted that, instead of having rigid physical stops for people to drive through these areas, we could have a camera that recognises cars going through, perhaps with some speed bumps and other less invasive measures to calm traffic, make sure it is safe and slow and reduce the number of wide vehicles.

It turns out that the section 6 rules, which the council would love to use to stop certain vehicles doing certain things on roads such as Woodmere Avenue, are not available in Watford—but they are available in London. The section 6 rules actively apply to London but not to the rest of the country, despite the Local Government Association being very supportive of the change. Why is that an issue? First, it is one of fairness. Why should London be able to put in place mechanisms to make traffic safer that are not allowed outside London? Secondly, if there is a solution out there that is already working, why should it not be applicable in my constituency for my constituents?

When I visit Woodmere Avenue—which I do quite regularly because it is very close to my constituency office—I find myself carefully driving through the width restrictions, and I see the marks on them that have clearly come from cars and vans being scratched over the years. While driving through, I sometimes see a driver who does not want to go through the width restrictions, so they go straight through the middle where the bus lane is. The width restrictions are not even doing the job that they should, because cars are still breaking the rules, and there is no real comeback, because there is no way to detect it—there is no ANPR and no cameras. Is that fair? No, it is not.

The people who are scratching their cars are not necessarily bad drivers. I have had people say to me, “Perhaps they just don’t know how to drive their car,” but even if someone is not a great driver and is a bit cautious or wobbly when going through the restrictions, is it fair that they should scratch their car, damage their vehicle and face the cost of having to go to a garage to fix it? I do not think so. In addition, I have seen vehicles have their axles broken, not because the drivers have driven through the restrictions at a particularly fast pace but because they have slightly misjudged it and the front wheel has been hit and damaged.

There is a moral issue and a fairness issue, and there is the issue of ANPR and the rules being applicable in London but not elsewhere. There is also a bigger topic of the right of individuals to have a say in what happens outside their own homes. There is a really good argument here around what I call pavement politics. Surely a resident of a street—a member of the British public—should be allowed to have a say in what happens outside their front door. They should have more of a say than somebody who sits in a council office at a distance and is not affected by that.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this debate forward. He has come to the crux of the matter: this is about local residents. I believe that those who are affected by the measures on the roads have a right to be consulted and then to have a say in what happens or does not happen. Does he agree that sometimes, common sense has to prevail and the authorities just have to listen?

The hon. Gentleman makes an incredibly powerful point. This is about common sense. People invest in their houses, they invest in their gardens if they have them, and they invest in their local community. Common sense should be part of the community.

One thing that we have seen over the past 12 months is the cutting of red tape. That has been forced upon us because of the awfulness of covid—the pandemic has meant that we have had to cut through red tape to do things quicker—but it has allowed us to trust people on the frontline. It has allowed us to trust local people to form community groups and help their neighbours—to set up Facebook groups to get food delivered and help people in their community. Why can we not also trust those people to have a stronger say in what happens on the road in front of their house?

Not so long ago, when I was with someone from the highways department, the council and a local resident, I had a conversation with a gentleman who lives near the width restriction. He told me that, as someone had gone through it and it had pinged their car, something had shot off and gone through the window of his car on his drive, causing damage. That does not seem sensible. People who live in these areas live with the repercussions of that day in, day out, yet they do not have more of a say than someone who lives in another part of the county. That seems rather bizarre to me.

Surely, when we look at this in the round, there is an opportunity here to look at the way we engage with local communities—the way we do surveys, for example. At the moment, if another survey is done, the taxpayer will have to pay an awful lot of money for the county council and other groups to go and ask residents things, in a way that we could probably organise on our own by going door to door at the weekend. As the Member of Parliament, I even offered to go around and do a survey, asking people exactly the same question about what they would like to be done, but that is not possible, because a very rigid, bureaucratic, red-tape-driven process has to be followed to get those views. That does not seem right.

All I ask the Minister to do today is to address those three points. First, I would really appreciate further discussion around Woodmere Avenue—an opportunity to explore the issue and to see whether we can solve it for local residents while keeping the road safe, ensuring that large vehicles that should not go down the road do not, and ensuring that people do not speed down there, but in a way that does not risk people scratching their cars or causing large traffic jams because they drive through so slowly.

Secondly, I would really appreciate it if time were spent looking again at section 6, to identify why rules that work in London cannot be applied outside it. To be fair, Watford is not far from London, so even if it were just a case of expanding the rules slightly to solve this big issue, I would appreciate it. However, on a serious note, why do we not look at this again? I would really appreciate it if time were taken to understand why this is the case and whether there are any plans in this respect.

Thirdly, on the much bigger point about local communities, the past year has shown that, when we give people on the frontline trust—when we embrace our communities, give them a voice and listen to them—the common sense that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned is there. People know what the issues are in their local community. They usually know the solutions way before red tape and bureaucracy kick in. I would really appreciate a view on whether we can start to ensure that local communities can have that say, what we would do from there, and what the timeline might be for some of the solutions. I thank the Minister for listening.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Dean Russell) on securing this end-of-day debate. May I take this opportunity to commend him and councillor candidate Carly Bishop for their tireless efforts in representing so well the views of the residents and motorists of Woodmere Avenue and the wider Tudor ward to find a solution to the issues that he has outlined? I hope that Carly and the residents of Woodmere Avenue are watching. We in the Government totally understand the desire for that common-sense pavement politics approach. Of course I will do everything in my power to help my hon. Friend advance the case, but I do not think he needs much assistance; he is doing it very well at the moment on his own.

I will start by setting out some background on where responsibilities for traffic management issues such as this lie. Managing traffic on local roads is a matter for local traffic authorities. They have a range of duties, powers and responsibilities on them in doing so. Local councils have a wide range of powers and tools available to help them manage their roads, including the ability to restrict access to roads to certain types of vehicles through width restrictions.

It is a matter for local authorities to decide whether a width restriction is the right solution for a particular road, taking into account local circumstances, and to design such restrictions appropriately. Traffic signs for width restrictions are prescribed in the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2016. The Department has provided advice to local authorities on using these signs in chapter 3 of the “Traffic Signs Manual”, which is available free online. The Department advises that the width shown on the sign should be at least 6 inches less than the actual available width. If the signed width is, for example, 7 feet, the actual width between the bollards should be between 7 foot 6 inches and 7 foot 11 inches.

Last year the Government announced that they would implement the moving traffic enforcement powers in part 6 of the Traffic Management Act 2004. That will enable those local authorities outside London with civil parking enforcement powers to apply to the Secretary of State to take responsibility for enforcement of a number of moving traffic offences. Work is under way on drafting regulations and statutory guidance, but it is not possible at this stage to say exactly when in 2021 the powers will be commenced.

I must also explain that part 6 powers would not help resolve the situation in Woodmere Avenue in the way that my hon. Friend has set out. Width restrictions are not included in the list of offences that part 6 powers would be used to enforce. Along with other safety-critical restrictions, such as height and weight limits, they will remain the responsibility of the police, and the Government have no plans to change the legislation to include width restrictions.

By design, width restrictions of this type are self-enforcing, as traffic over the specified width cannot continue down the route. It is therefore not clear what benefit CCTV enforcement would provide at this point. The restriction in question is alongside a bus lane. Local authorities have powers to enforce bus lane infringements using CCTV, which might be something that the local authority could consider. Drivers should also be properly informed of width restrictions in advance, in time to take an alternative route and avoid them altogether. The local authority could review whether the signing on the approaches to this junction is clear enough to drivers.

As my hon. Friend knows and has set out, local councillors have a vital role in representing the concerns of their constituents to the local authority and to their Member of Parliament and in securing change. They also have a role in determining what schemes are prioritised and how funding is allocated locally. We are clear that authorities should take into account the needs of all road users in designing their schemes. They must engage properly with local communities when considering changes to local roads to ensure that they reflect their concerns and priorities.

In conclusion, I thank my hon. Friend for continuing to be such a vocal local champion and continuing to seek a suitable solution for the residents in the affected area. I am very happy to continue working with him, and I am sure that my noble Friend in the other place, Baroness Vere, who is responsible for roads specifically and some of the regulation that my hon. Friend has referred to, will also be very happy to continue working with him. I am certain that the local authority and the local councillors who are concerned with these matters are watching tonight, and they will have heard his advocacy on behalf of the residents. I am confident, therefore, that these continued efforts will lead to an appropriate solution being found.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.