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M56 Motorway (Junctions 6 to 7) (Variable Speed Limits) Regulations 2022

Volume 823: debated on Monday 11 July 2022

Motion to Regret

Moved by

That this House regrets that the M56 Motorway (Junctions 6 to 7) (Variable Speed Limits) Regulations 2022 do not sufficiently take into account recent evidence about the risks of smart motorways and the use of the hard shoulder as a running lane, nor the concerns raised by the House of Commons Transport Committee, which recommended the pause of the rollout of future All Lane Running smart motorway schemes until a full five years’ worth of safety data is available. (SI 2022/607).

Relevant document: 5th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (special attention drawn to the instrument)

My Lords, I am pleased to see that the Minister is still with us to answer this debate. There were times last week when I began to wonder whether she would be. In these surreal days, it is reassuring that she will be able to bring her experience of this issue to bear on the debate, because we have discussed the safety of smart motorways before. An essential part of my weekly reading is the email report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, whose work I cannot praise too highly. Its weekly reports are focused, specific and pull no punches. The Minister will know that Department for Transport legislation features rather too often in those reports.

First, on the detail of these regulations, they permit variable speed limits between junctions 6 and 8 of the M56 as part of an “all lane running scheme”, known as a smart motorway, near Manchester Airport. It will be operational from 12 September, with the hard shoulder converted to a running lane with emergency refuge areas. The decision to press ahead with this came as a surprise because the Secretary of State back in January had made a very firm statement that he would pause the rollout of future smart motorway schemes until a full five years of safety data was available. That very welcome commitment was made following the Transport Select Committee’s report on smart motorways last November, in which it concluded that

“the scale of safety measures needed to effectively and reliably mitigate the risks associated with the permanent removal of the hard shoulder on all-lane running motorways has been underestimated by successive Administrations, the Department for Transport and National Highways”.

The committee goes on to recommend that the department and National Highways should

“retrofit emergency refuge areas to existing all-lane running motorways to make them a maximum of 1,500 metres apart, decreasing to every 1,000 metres where physically possible”.

The strange thing about this SI is that the Explanatory Memorandum makes no mention of the Transport Select Committee’s critical report or of the Government’s commitments to deal with safety issues. This is legislation in a vacuum, and the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee refers to it as “inexplicable”. It is at best shoddy and at worst an attempt to lull us into thinking that this is an insignificant routine measure that we do not need to worry about looking at in detail.

The Government’s commitment to pause the development of new smart motorways came with the caveat that those over 50% complete would proceed. But that caveat came with a promise that there would be retrofitting of existing schemes to reduce the distance between emergency areas. Apparently, this scheme is one of six where development work will proceed, as the Minister’s reply to the committee chair eventually spelled out, including schemes on the M1, M4, M6 and M27. So, the letter of the Secretary of State’s promise is being adhered to, even if the spirit is broken.

What of the promise that the frequency of emergency areas will be increased? That is at the core of safety concerns. The original concept of smart motorways envisaged emergency areas at around every kilometre, and the Transport Select Committee recommendation accepted by the Secretary of State was for between 1 kilometre and 1.5 kilometres. But the Minister has confirmed that this new stretch of motorway on the M56 will go ahead with four emergency areas, every 2.5 kilometres on average. At least this is the figure in the original Department for Transport response, but the Minister later wrote to the chair saying that they are on average 1.07 miles apart, or 1,721 metres. The Department for Transport seems to be taking on board the advice of Jacob Rees-Mogg and has moved back to imperial measurements, which might confuse us, but looking at it in metres, there is still a very significant difference between the original DfT response and the second one. So, my first question to the Minister is to ask her to clarify exactly what the distance is between the two emergency areas on either side of the M56 between junctions 6 and 8 because of that vast difference between her two answers.

I am surprised that the Government are not taking the opportunity to build these two new sections of smart motorway up to the full safety standards from the start. Given that they have decided to go ahead and finish the job they have started—I understand that decision—why not improve them as they do it? Surely it will be cheaper and less disruptive to traffic to do the job properly and maximise safety from the start. What feasibility assessment and cost assessments have been made of the additional costs of improving this stretch after it has opened? Will the Minister give us a commitment that the distance between emergency areas on this stretch will actually be improved, as promised by the Secretary of State? I note that the Minister’s letter talked in general about large sums of money and neatly avoided specific commitments to this scheme. What about the five other schemes on the list that are being completed? Can she give us similar commitments on them?

The Minister’s letter also claimed that smart motorways are safer than ordinary ones, but again there is a whiff of casuistry here. The Government’s own stocktake of safety, ordered in October 2019, showed that the risks of vehicles stopping in a live lane and changing lanes dangerously increase on smart motorways, while other risks, such as driving too fast, decrease. None of that detail is spelled out in the letter, and it becomes even clearer that frequent emergency areas are the key to safety when you take that into account.

I put down this regret Motion for two reasons. I had greatly welcomed the Secretary of State’s commitment at the start of the year, and I really regret the Government’s failure to implement the clear spirit of the commitments he made by ensuring that this stretch of the M56 is not brought into use without a safe number of emergency areas. I also put down this regret Motion to express concern at the continuing poor quality of some Department for Transport legislation, or at least the EMs associated with them. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s additional explanations of why this SI is flawed in the ways that I have pointed out.

My Lords, I support most of what the noble Baroness said in introducing this short debate. We are starting to hear that the Government are changing metres into feet or miles, but that is completely irrelevant. I suspect that, as the noble Baroness said, this regulation and the policy behind it—if you can call it that—will cover the whole of the country before long. I believe that there are already 236 miles of smart motorway, and that 200 more miles are planned.

I will say a few words about safety, because that is what it is all about. The distance between the places where you can get off the motorway must relate to what happens to your vehicle and the fact that you need to stop. The noble Baroness mentioned a variety of distances between 2,500 metres and 1,000 metres, but there will be situations where even 1,000 metres is not long enough; it depends on the gradient, the speeds and everything else. It is relevant that the AA has banned its recovery crews from dealing with cars that have broken down on smart motorways because it is too dangerous. There has to be a solution. I do not know what the right distance is; it is sad that the Government have not got some proper data on all this—probably over five years, as the noble Baroness and the Transport Committee suggested—so that we have some information to talk about and to see how safety is affected.

Two things are pretty obvious. The first is around the enforcement of speed on these motorways. There may or may not be variable speeds, but it needs to be much more effective and consistent. The electronic vehicle detection machine is supposed to be the Government’s flagship—in other words, if a vehicle breaks down not in a layby but in the left-hand lane, variable message signs immediately come up, saying “Slow down: lane is blocked.” But the figure I have seen shows that this works in only 62% of the examples where a vehicle has stopped, presumably in the nearside lane. That is much too low, because it means that, for the other 38%, there is a good chance that the vehicle behind will run into the one that has stopped. I cannot see why that cannot work properly. The Government should avoid bringing any more of these into effect until they can get this vehicle detection system working.

I look forward to the Minister’s response. As the noble Baroness said, I am pleased she is here, because she has a lot of experience on roads and transport. This is a terrible mess. Frankly, when the Government ignore the House of Commons Transport Committee’s sensible report, and receive the comments that the noble Baroness mentioned in the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee’s report, it is as if they just want to ignore the whole lot and battle on regardless. I hope I am wrong.

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises some serious and good points. However, I gently remind noble Lords of how these smart motorways came to pass. I recall that, in my time in the European Parliament as the transport spokesman—obviously covering road, rail, aviation and maritime—the huge push for smart motorways came from the regulations and directives in the European Parliament some years ago. This was not just about the UK. We found that many member states were having problems with capacity due to the growth in traffic, and it was about trying to look at a way that we did not have to build motorways in different parts of the country but just expand the ones that we had.

I fully acknowledge that there have clearly been some awful accidents due to the fact that there was no hard shoulder. When motorways were built in the first place, it was known that there could be a risk of accident—obviously, there is always the risk of accident—and it was paramount that there needed to be a safe space to go. I also understand that in some cases where there have been accidents, it has been very much a technological failure because the notification above the lane that it was closed, or the X, was not showing. People have then got confused, and of course some of the results of that have been appalling. There are also appalling accidents even for the miles of motorways where we have hard shoulders, which is why we have tried to make sure that people are alert if they pull in and why we now tell people to get out of their cars, notwithstanding the size of the lorries that sometimes have to pull in.

Can my noble friend say whether the Government are looking at how, for example, the technology can work, notwithstanding that we have spent millions expanding these motorways? I use the M6 with great frequency when I drive down here, and the M56 too, which the noble Baroness mentioned, and we have miles of full lanes where we are doing 60 miles an hour. We have had years of this expansion—obviously not of infrastructure—for all the right reasons on the motorways, to get the capacity, and we have been under terrible restrictions with roadworks; it is now even more infuriating that we have four lanes but are still all crawling along half of the time.

Notwithstanding the issue of technology, which clearly needs to be seen to be working and to work properly so that people and organisations have confidence, I look forward to the response from my noble friend. We need to move this on. As the noble Baroness opposite said, there is clearly a need for more laybys to access. This will take some time, because more roadworks will have to be started, but it is imperative that those can be put in place as quickly as possible.

My Lords, the Government’s failed rollout of smart motorways costs lives, which is exactly why Members of this House have long warned of serious flaws. It is a tragedy that lives were lost before action was taken, and it is thanks only to the dedication of bereaved families that the rollout was paused at all. It is therefore beyond belief that the Government are still pressing ahead with new introductions.

Even in their current form, smart motorways, coupled with inadequate safety systems, are not fit for purpose, and clearly no adequate explanation has yet been offered for their further introduction. Unfortunately, the reality of this new scheme is even worse. The emergency areas in this new scheme have average spacings of 2.5 kilometres, which is much greater than the recommended separation of 1.5 kilometres. Before pressing ahead, the Minister needs to offer proper reassurances on the monitoring of CCTV, further reviews of the evidence and improved distances between refuge areas, at the very least.

Besides the well-noted safety concerns, there are also serious issues with the scrutiny afforded to these changes, not least the fact that the Explanatory Memorandum does not address any of these obvious issues. I hope that the Minister can provide such assurances today and address the points made in the noble Baroness’s Motion.

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in today’s debate. I am also fairly grateful to still be here; I have enjoyed being the Roads Minister for the past three years, and I know a fair amount about smart motorways, so I shall try to answer as many questions as have been raised, but of course I will happily write with more detail because I suspect that I will not be able to get through everything.

This is an opportunity to remind noble Lords of the commitments we have made in our response to the Transport Select Committee report. Noble Lords will recall that the second anniversary progress report was published earlier this year, in March 2022, and set out the progress we are making on the action plan we set out in 2020 on smart motorways. That was when issues about their safety first came to the fore and were picked up by the media. The Secretary of State and I did an awful lot of work on that to ensure that smart motorways are not only as safe as they possibly can be but feel as safe as they possibly can.

They are the type of road that gets the greatest amount of scrutiny in our country. I also note that this country has very safe roads relative to pretty much any other country in the world. Interestingly enough, smart motorways are the safest roads we have in the country with regard to the killed and seriously injured figures.

We are talking about roads that are already very safe—compare them to the average rural road and you will see that they are far safer, as we must always recognise. However, the Government remain determined to continue to make people safe, and feel safe, on these roads. That is why we agreed to the Transport Committee’s report and all the recommendations therein. This included an agreement to pause the rollout of all future all-lane running motorway schemes until five years’ worth of safety and economic data are available for those schemes that opened before 2020. In our response, we also clarified that we would continue with those roads that were more than 50% complete.

Why, many years ago now, did we start the smart motorways scheme programme? We need greater capacity on our roads, as was noted by my noble friend Lady Foster, and smart motorways offer a way to get that. We get improved reliability, reduced journey times and smoother traffic flows, which is key for safety. Much of this does not appear in the safety stats for these roads, but we also shift traffic from less-safe roads, because capacity on the road increases, so some people using less-safe roads will necessarily move to these roads. They require much less land take, so they have a lower environmental impact, including on biodiversity. They cost 50% to 60% of the amount that would be spent on a traditional widening scheme—significantly less of a call on the taxpayer—and they can be done more quickly.

The M56 is no different. It was included in the June 2013 spending review, which seems like a very long time ago, and it was confirmed in the first road investment strategy in 2015. The main construction works on the scheme began in November 2020 and, as noble Lords have pointed out, it is due to open later this year. It is well over 80% complete.

The M56 scheme is four miles long and has four emergency areas. Here we get to the problem that we had in the Explanatory Memorandum, and I can only apologise that the wording in the Explanatory Memorandum is incorrect. The spacing of 2.5 km, or 1.6 miles, refers to the maximum spacing between places to stop in an emergency. That was the design standard when this scheme was designed. In reality, there is an emergency area every 1.7 km, or 1.07 miles, on average, on this stretch. It was built and designed to the design standard in place at the time, which I think all noble Lords would expect, and actually has emergency area spacing of far less. We may well go on to include further emergency areas on the M56, but this will be considered as part of the emergency area retrofit programme, which will be available later this year.

As with all smart motorway schemes opening now, this scheme will open with stopped vehicle detection. This is radar-based technology, further elements of which I shall come to later. Essentially, it looks at the road and sees where vehicles have stopped and then provides an alert to the regional operating centre, and various things then happen as a result of that.

Let us think about the smart motorway safety data. It is important to bear in mind that the latest data we have available is for 2020, so the data available is from before any of the interventions that the Government set out in the smart motorway action plan, back in 2020, were put in place or had any impact. This data is from before the Government intervened, as we have now committed.

A conventional motorway has 1.45 killed and seriously injured per 100 million vehicle miles. I encourage noble Lords to keep that in their heads. An all-lane running motorway has 1.38, so 0.07 fewer. It is safer when it comes to killed and seriously injured. That is before the widescale rollout of stopped vehicle technology, before the commitment to retrofit emergency areas, before the signage improvements we have committed to and put in place, before the recent communications campaign which told everybody to go left, before the upgrade to the HADECS cameras for Red X enforcement, and before all of the 18 measures which the Government said they would do in 2020. I am fairly convinced that those 18 measures will improve safety further.

On the basis of the 2020 data, an all-lane running motorway is already safer than a conventional motorway when it comes to killed and seriously injured. For all these people who say, “Put back the hard shoulder; let’s go back to conventional”, I do not know on what evidence that would be remotely the right thing to do. If the evidence changes, of course we should look at it again, but I cannot see at this moment—and after how much scrutiny?—that the evidence exists to even contemplate ripping out these motorways, removing capacity, putting some of those people on less-safe roads and, for the people who stay on the motorway, making them slightly less safe. I cannot see it myself.

Can the Minister explain why all this evidence was not contained in the Explanatory Memorandum, which she personally approved?

I will happily explain that. All the evidence I just outlined was in the progress report—as I said, there was an enormous amount of scrutiny. If I had my time again, would I have put all that evidence in the Explanatory Memorandum? No, because Explanatory Memorandums cannot possibly include every bit of evidence on which the Government have made a policy decision. This M56 variable speed limit SI is very standard—I cannot even begin to tell your Lordships how many we have done. However, I wish I had included a paragraph with links to all the different reports we have already done into smart motorways. There is a balance between providing sufficient information and links and ending up with an Explanatory Memorandum that becomes unwieldy. We could provide those links though.

My recollection, though I may have got it wrong, is that the standard for Explanatory Memorandums requires them to be easily understood by a person with no previous knowledge. The arguments that she has revealed to us, which may or may not be persuasive, are not available to people with no previous knowledge.

That is exactly why, as I set out, we will update the Explanatory Memorandum. Am I going to regurgitate everything in the progress report, the response to the Transport Select Committee, the progress report from last year, and the original 2020 action plan and stocktake? No, because it would become a document of several hundred pages. We must be selective, but I think we can include links to other reports to explain it to people.

However, let us be absolutely clear that all this SI does is allow a variable mandatory speed limit to be put in place. Will that have any impact on road safety for that stretch? No, it will not. In allowing a mandatory speed limit to come in, it will probably make it safer. If the Government are then required to do an entire Explanatory Memorandum about the much broader policy, we will end up with some very lengthy Explanatory Memorandums.

The Minister has illustrated that it can be done in a reasonably concise way. She just went through all the arguments—I cannot say that I am convinced because I cannot see them all together on a piece of paper—but the length of her speech is not that long compared with the paucity of information in the Explanatory Memorandum.

I could speak about smart motorways for ever—and I have not finished yet. I will happily set out in a letter to the House exactly where all these links are—I am sure the noble Lord knows where they all are—and summarise all the data that is out there at the moment, and make sure that a copy is placed in the Library. I am sure that it will be incredibly helpful.

I want to move on from the focus on safety data. The Transport Select Committee agreed with the Government that reinstating the hard shoulder and going back to a conventional motorway was not in the best interests of either our economy or the safety of the people using our motorways, and we were pleased that it reached that conclusion.

On the schemes that we are not pausing, the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, noted that six schemes will continue because they are more than 50% complete. We feel that the disruption and challenges to road safety that leaving traffic management in place for any significant period of time would cause—because roadworks can be quite unsafe—make it not a viable option. Of course, with roadworks in place, many drivers would also use less-safe roads than the motorway. We therefore took the decision to continue with those schemes that are more than 50% complete. However, we did say that stopped vehicle detection will be in place for all the smart motorways that we are opening, and that is indeed the case. I did not mention cost in that, but the cost of reverting a motorway back to where it was before is fairly significant.

I want to cover a couple of points on which noble Lords have asked for clarity. I think that I have set out the Explanatory Memorandum issue. Again, I apologise that the original memorandum was incorrect. We put in various safeguards to ensure that people not connected to the Explanatory Memorandum read it. Clearly, even in those circumstances, it did not pass the sniff test, so we are going to get better—we really are.

The topic of more frequent emergency areas is an interesting one. As noble Lords will know, the spacing between emergency areas has come down. In 2011, it was 1.5 miles; in 2017, it was a mile; in 2020, with the new one, it was 0.75 miles, and obviously there are maximums in there as well. Does that necessarily mean that roads built to a more recent design specification are more dangerous than those built to the previous specification? The jury is still out; it is really interesting. One thing we said in the stocktake that we would do is put 10 more emergency areas on the M25. That was done, and they have been in place for well over a year now. The data from them on how many live lane stops there were and the impact on safety is being collated at the moment, but I expect it to be inconclusive. Go figure—but one has to look at the evidence.

The noble Baroness is signalling that I should get on with it. I agree—let us get on with it.

The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, made a couple of points. The AA responds on smart motorways—of course it does. No recovery operator is allowed on a smart motorway while it is live but they can go to the emergency areas. Traffic officers are responsible for lanes when they are still live; ditto on a conventional motorway. The AA will come to your rescue if you end up in an emergency area or indeed on a hard shoulder.

On the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, I am absolutely focused on the technology. As I said, the safety data that we have to date is not based on having the technology there; therefore, the technology will go in only one direction in improving things. We want stopped vehicle detection to work as well as it possibly can. Will it ever identify 100% of all stopped vehicles? No, because it is radar, and therefore will not do that, but those are not its design characteristics. We are very keen to make sure that all our technology works as well as possible. We have commissioned the ORR to review all the technology on smart motorways, and we are working well with it on setting all that up. It is important that we have its expert insight to ensure that the technology is as good as it possibly can be; we are grateful to it for its help.

I am sure that I have forgotten various things, but I sense that the House wants me to wind up, so I shall.

I thank those noble Lords who took part this evening; in particular, I thank the Minister for her response.

Of course I recognise that safety on smart motorways is a complex issue. It relates to emergency areas, response times and response detection. But I must comment that, at times, the Minister’s response was at odds with the Government’s own stocktake and the evidence on safety that the Transport Select Committee received. Whether she agrees with that or not, she must recognise that there is widespread public concern about safety. It may be perceived rather than real, but that is probably because most of us find driving on smart motorways an extremely stressful experience. This is an indication of the perception of the safety of those roads. When the Minister comes to review the tone of her response on certain issues this evening, she may recognise that she is not doing her argument any favours with the general public. There needs to be a realistic assessment of this situation by the Government, but I recognise that this is a very specific issue. I therefore beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion withdrawn.