Streetscape and Highways Design Bill

Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 12:50 pm on 27th April 2007.

Alert me about debates like this

Votes in this debate

Order for Second Reading read.

Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Secretary of State (Trade and Industry) 1:03 pm, 27th April 2007

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It is an unexpected and happy surprise to have the opportunity to move the Second Reading of this Bill, which is supported by hon. Members on both sides of the House. It is a Bill that attempts to introduce a complete change in the climate and culture of local government highway authorities' decisions about the implementation of the regulations and directions that govern how our road signs are located and what they look like. Most areas of public policy require budgets and targets, and most address clear cases of need, such as teaching the young or treating the old. On issues such as taxation and spending, the battleground is well established across the divide of the House, but there are some matters that are shaped by Government and cause intense irritation while rarely figuring on the political radar. One such issue is our streetscape and the design of our roads.

Local councils are measured by the National Audit Office against all sorts of vague criteria to assess their performance in the likes of social services, housing and education, but nowhere are they held to account for the desecration they inflict on our roads. Highways officers are the monsters of local government, who for too long have got away with appalling practices and almost no accountability. They have become a law unto themselves and they need serious reining in.

Britain's roads are better than most; their basic design is sound, central reservations are well designed, directional sign posting to show the way to this or that town is good and practical, and their safety record is strong. However, that is where the good news ends. The bad news is that throughout Britain our streetscape is in serious decline and it is entirely the fault of local highways officers.

Existing legislation, if properly implemented, presents no obstacle to good design, yet its interpretation by highways officers invariably converts well intentioned guidelines into brutalist schemes. When we travel down any road in the UK, we encounter millions of metal poles and bossy signs where just a few would suffice. Most of them are wholly unnecessary but no councillor dares challenge the erroneous advice of the highways officer who says they are essential if the council is to avoid legal liability.

Every pelican crossing tends to have two banks of lights where one would suffice, and the greatest abomination of the 21st century so far—Kettering's new business park junction—has 118 metal poles and more light bulbs than Heathrow. The officers who countenanced its design should hang their heads in shame.

Aesthetics matter. Our built environment affects our quality of life; it requires good design, good taste and good management. Each is rare on the streets of most of our councils. Highways officers shape our streetscape with almost no accountability and, more often than not, poor aesthetic judgment. They cover all their imaginary risks with excessive over-building and nobody stops to say, "No".

The list of sign crimes is endless. Signposts such as "No Entry" roundels should be on the back line of the road, yet increasingly they are planted right on the edge of the kerb. New signs are placed where they obscure existing ones. Temporary signs such as "New Junction Ahead" or "New Layout Ahead" remain in place for years—one in Leicester has been there for more than a decade. Most triangular signs, such as those alerting a driver to a road junction, are optional, yet in many cases highways officers wrongly advise that they are obligatory. Needless bollards and chevrons are built into roundabouts. Councillors are often told that signs have to be illuminated when in fact most of them do not.

When new signs are erected, old ones are not removed. There are often two signs—or even many more—where just one would do. Schemes for clearways, weight restrictions or, increasingly, cycle paths never properly assess the blight of the signs that accompany them. On cycle paths all over the country, we have seen the proliferation of little blue roundels; in one example, there was one every 50 yards. I am all for cycle paths, but we do not need all the metal signs that go with them—a little painted diagram on the tarmac would be enough. Instead, there are millions of blue signs on our streets, most of them directed at passing traffic, which is utterly irrelevant to the message being conveyed. If the signs are to be there at all, they should be 3 ft high and on the pavement, to advise cyclists and pedestrians that it is shared space.

One of the greatest abominations is the red route in London. As a result of Transport for London's handling of the issue, if we go down the end of the A1 or Finchley road, we find a red route "no stopping" sign on almost every lamppost or every 20 yards, so I think that people have got the message. At the end of the A1 in the last two-mile stretch where it begins to come into a more residential area, one can see 30 signs within about 20 square yards in some places. That is absurd: it does nothing for safety; it makes everything look ugly; and, in many cases, because of the confusion that ensues, it makes our driving and our roads less safe.

As things stand, certainly no voter and, in most cases, no elected councillor has much of a chance of getting anything changed. The problem is exacerbated by a total lack of expertise among contractors about what is necessary and what is not. They just do what they are told and are mostly concerned with the tarmac and the route of the road: they never think about the finish. A newly built bypass in Rutland in my own constituency was, I am pleased to say, within a month of opening able to have three quarters of its signs removed—and it now looks good.

Councillors need to learn to be firm with highways officers whose interpretation of the road signs regulations is often simply plain wrong. Both our urban and our rural streetscape are in serious decline. Council officers, particularly the highways officers, are the serial offenders, and most of them require the firm leadership that is being so effectively displayed nearby in Kensington and Chelsea, where this issue has become a high priority under Deputy Leader Daniel Moylan.

In the absence of a revolution in officers' culture, sadly, I have to say, the only practical solution lies in legislation. My Streetscape and Highways Design Bill is an attempt to address that infuriating deficiency in the public realm. It will empower and embolden councillors to take highways officers to task, enable them to challenge on the basis of proper expertise, and equip those councillors to take command over highways decisions rather than rest, as they do now, when highways officers take brutalist command of decisions over them.

Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Minister (Energy), Trade & Industry

I am certainly supportive of the Bill. I recall that when I was trying to reduce the number of signs in Cambridge, the Cambridgeshire county council did not even know how many signs it had—and one of the Bill's provisions will deal with that. However, does the hon. Gentleman recognise that sometimes the problem does lie with central Government and that sometimes the central Government have odd regulations about what kind of signs have to be used? For example, there appears to be a regulation stating that we are not allowed to have a sign saying "No entry except for cyclists", so we have to have a very complicated set of other signs instead. Sometimes, as I say, the problem does lie with central Government.

Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Secretary of State (Trade and Industry)

The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly good point. When I was shadow Secretary of State for Transport, I tried to get to grips with a telephone directory-sized manual of traffic signs, directions and regulations. By and large, a lot of the content of the book was pretty good, because some sort of consistency in respect of signposts is helpful to establish understanding and promote safety on our roads.

What I have since discovered, however, is that many highways officers completely misunderstand what those regulations require them to do. Many aspects of signposting are voluntary or optional, but the highways officers often tell councillors that the rules state that they are compulsory. The Government or the Department for Transport can always amend those regulations—that is not the problem—and they did so, I believe, in 2002, when they did a pretty good job of it. The real problem lies in the practical application on the ground within highways authorities. Highways officers have power over councillors in a way that even planning officers in some ways do not. These highways officers have the power to say, "Oh, councillor, you must have that; otherwise the council might face legal liability". Much of that is stuff and nonsense, but no councillor dares to say, "Well, I don't believe that." They hide behind the risk and do not want to do anything about it. I want to try to establish a culture change whereby councillors can find out the truth so that they can take good decisions and we end up with safe roads that look good.

The Bill is not expensive—if anything, it is cost-cutting. I am not aware of a single council other than Kensington and Chelsea that has a written highways policy against which subsequent planning decisions are measured. Councils have never stopped to think, "How do I want my highways area to look?" or "Do I want to go for the highest number of signs possible or the lowest?" As soon as they are made to stop and think, they say "Well, I'd rather have fewer." Under the Bill, every council would be required to publish a highways policy, which could be three or four pages—it does not have to be a glossy publication. Invariably, any such considered policy would reflect the council's desire to see fewer road signs, less metal and far less visual pollution. Within the community of local government, best practice would emerge and that model, which would most likely be a minimalist policy, would be adopted.

For instance, the Government—I am full of admiration and praise for this measure—working with English Heritage, the Department for Transport and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, have published "Streets for All", which has also had regional editions. It is a really good document that evidences how streets can be made to look better, with advice such as using wood instead of metal. It asks what kind of paving should be used on the pavement and whether the colour matches the environment. It asks what kind of traffic lights should be used and whether pelican crossings have to have great big gantries with the traffic light, as they invariably do, or whether there can just be a little button on the pole by the pavement with a green man and a red man—it could be a woman; a green androgynous figure—to tell people that they are safe to cross the road. All those examples of best practice have been well researched and well documented and they are used, but highways authorities do not embrace them sufficiently. I want to see best practice emerge, and if councils had highways policies there would be a yardstick against which officers' advice would have to be tempered and tested.

Crucially, there is also the Audit Commission. In my constituency a few years ago, a contractor put in signs for a 7.5 tonne weight limit. Almost every sign was in the wrong place according to the advice and guidelines given by Government. Instead of being set back on the hedge line of a nice country lane, they were right up on the corner where inevitably passing traffic—horseboxes, mowers and so on—would dent them and knock them down. They looked disgusting. Even when there was a tiny country lane with two stone houses 5 m across from each other, two signs were put up when one would have done. These people are morons and they are not following the rules. The trouble is, when I went to the Audit Commission with an assessment of what the contractors had done, the money that they had spent and the standards of their decisions, the Audit Commission said, "We have no scope within our remit to hold them to account."

Unless a council has real leadership, there are problems with highways officers, bad design, poor practice and even wrongly sited signs that are just left there, and no one has any form of redress. There is a great vacuum in terms of setting good standards in local government. If we have to take such a measure—in many ways, I regret that we do—I want the Audit Commission to embrace the built environment in its assessment of a council. I want to see the Audit Commission's remit revised.

The Bill would require councils to audit their sign population, and it would compel the Department for Transport to offer professional advice to any councillor who wished to question the validity of his local highway officer's interpretation of the rules. It is important for an audit of signs to be held. It would not have to be done very often, but the problem is that it has never happened. When a new sign is put up, no one stops to think about what signs are already there, and no one tries to balance more modern signs with the older ones.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Opposition Whip (Commons)

As part of that audit procedure, does my hon. Friend think that note should be taken of safety implications, particularly as regards highway signage? The plethora of information and signage is often a distraction to drivers, and it can be detrimental and dangerous when people are trying to look at carriageway markings, at whether there are variable speed limits, and at all sorts of information right across the spectrum of their windscreen. That plethora of signs can actually do more harm than good.

Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Secretary of State (Trade and Industry)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Any pilot could tell us of the well known phenomenon of the danger of having too many lights on a runway. My bête noire is Kettering business park junction, which needs a stick of dynamite. It is very dangerous; there is a great deal of rubber on the road, because there are two junctions right next to each other, each with 30 or 40 traffic lights. Drivers look at the lights ahead, rather than the set of lights that they are approaching. The authorities have so overbuilt the junction that instead of making it safe, they have made it dangerous.

The same applies to many other roads. Let me give an example: we do not need always need a triangular sign to tell us when there is a road joining from the left. These days, at such points, there is usually an illuminated bollard, and one can normally see whether a car is waiting to turn out of the road. That is the most helpful visual aid to safe driving. Having too many signs is an impediment to safe driving, and it looks horrid, so it is less safe and less attractive. Highway authorities ought to have to audit the signs, so that they know what is there. If some of the signs are attractive and old-fashioned, the council may want to keep them, because it may think that they add to the environment. When councils undertake the audit, they will suddenly find milestones and other features of our streetscape that they will want to preserve and maintain.

It is important to have an audit of signs, a written highways policy, and somewhere councillors can turn to when they feel that they are being bamboozled by highway officers. I am not saying that everyone should be able to phone up the Department for Transport, but I phone it from time to time, and the expertise in the Department is very good. There are some very good people there who know the issues inside out and who roll their eyes in despair at some of the things that are done by councils. I ask them, "Will you please visit my constituency and explain to these people why what they are doing is wrong, and is not even required under the regulations that they think they're enforcing?" Understandably, people at the Department answer that they just do not have the people to visit all the councils. Frankly, they would need an army if they were to try to stop councils doing all the bad things that they do. A councillor needs to be able to pick up the phone, explain the issue and ask an expert in the Department for Transport whether a sign is really obligatory or not.

I can give another example. A councillor wanted to make a lovely little country back lane one-way, because it was a bit of a rat run in peak hours. She was told that all the signs would have to be illuminated, that 20 signs would be needed, and that it would cost £100,000. It could have been done for £3,000, and I do not like well intentioned councillors being misled by professional officers. My Bill tries to ensure that in the future, councillors will no longer be bamboozled by tasteless philistines.

I estimate that as many as half of what I call non-directional signs, or warning signs, could be uprooted for the better. I would like many of them to be uprooted. I want a change in the culture of road design, for which the expertise exists. Britain has got some good roads. The paradox is that some rural areas are covered in signs, yet when I go to Newcastle—I am shadow Minister for Tyneside—it has minimalist street furniture on roundabouts. That urban area is an example to many rural areas.

I would like us all to become clutter busters. I would like more than half our signs to be uprooted. Most clearway signs are unnecessary. If they are put up on a main road, two further "end of clearway" signs have to be erected on every road that leads into the main road. That is unnecessary and visually ghastly.

If the Bill gets a Second Reading, we will have less confusion, less maintenance, less visual pollution and a much better and safer built environment. Securing the Second Reading debate today was unexpected but I hope that the Government do not object to the Bill. If they destroy the measure, the danger is that we shall have more dangerous roads and that all our constituencies will end up looking less attractive.

We all love our constituencies and feel strongly about local issues. The Bill has implications for every hon. Member and presents an opportunity to do something in our constituencies that makes life happier and pleasanter.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Opposition Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend knows that London local authorities receive parcels of money for specific uses from Transport for London. For example, a London local authority will get a parcel of money for red tarmacking a carriageway or speed bumps, and because the money cannot be used for any other purpose, the authority will look for somewhere to put speed bumps when it possibly did not intend to have them. That takes away decision making from local authorities.

Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Secretary of State (Trade and Industry)

My hon. Friend is right. One of the problems of a stream of Government money for specific purposes is that it can have perverse outcomes. I had a similar experience in my constituency, where a lump of money was given for safer routes to school. To my great dismay, red paint was applied all over a country lane where kids had walked for centuries perfectly happily with their satchels or ridden on their bikes. It indicated where children were supposed to walk on their way to school. I cannot imagine a more moronic scheme or use of money. Kids will walk where they want to walk and not follow expensive red paint, even if it has desecrated my nice rural constituency.

My Bill tries to secure a culture change and I hope that the Government will let it go into Committee. Why do we not thrash it out in Committee? If the Government want to destroy it later and introduce a their Bill on the subject, that is fine. I ask the Whip what the point is of destroying a well intentioned Bill, which is not party political. It affects every constituency and will make our constituencies and roads more attractive and safer. I hope that the House will give me leave to take the Bill into Committee so that we can raise the profile and significance of an issue about which many people have never thought. Now that they have, they will say, "Yeah, he's got a point."

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes 1:29 pm, 27th April 2007

I congratulate Alan Duncan on his idiosyncratic Bill, which I support because it touches on an important issue. The hon. Gentleman may like to know that I encouraged my county council a year or two ago to identify and remove unnecessary signage in my constituency, of which there is plenty, not least for the reasons that he gave. There are signs where, for example, speed limit termination points have changed and the old poles have been left, with the signs removed. There are signs warning of cattle where farms are no longer operating. There is plenty of signage like that, which brings the system into disrepute, can be a danger and creates clutter in rural areas.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the signage itself is, by and large, correct and useful. I would offer one caveat: the sign that supposedly bans pedestrians, which is a red circle with a human figure in it. Pedestrians, who may not be familiar with the highway code, see that as an invitation to walk along that route, rather than as a prohibition, as the sign is intended to convey. I wish the Department for Transport would deal with that sign, although I do not suppose it will.

Signs are sometimes used by highway officials, to use the hon. Gentleman's term, as an alternative to providing proper road safety measures. Pressure comes from a councillor, a road safety group or residents who point out a problem that may require a change to road layout or some other expensive remedy. The solution provided by highways officers is to erect a sign as a means of showing the people concerned that something has been done. That achieves very little, but it demonstrates that the council in question has done something. Many signs have been erected to get residents groups off highway officers' backs, rather than to achieve a road safety objective. There are too many signs that say the equivalent of "Do not throw stones at this notice", and very little else.

There is a growing tendency towards the inclusion of advertisements on highway land, which is encouraged by some highway authorities. That is regrettable. We see advertisements on roundabouts, for example, which adds to clutter and, as well as disfiguring the environment, presents a potential hazard for motorists, who have to take in those signs as well as relevant ones on the highway.

I agree that the Bill should be subjected to scrutiny. If the Government have something against it, they should set out their objections in Committee. The hon. Gentleman's argument has been undermined slightly by his colleague, Angela Watkinson, who argued exactly the opposite on the previous Bill.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Opposition Whip (Commons) 1:32 pm, 27th April 2007

I congratulate my hon. Friend Alan Duncan on securing a Second Reading of his Bill. That gives me my first opportunity to speak from the Dispatch Box, but I expect that it will be short-lived.

There can be few people who have not noticed the plethora of signs that seem to proliferate around our cities, countryside and villages. In my village in north Yorkshire in recent months electricity poles have been removed, which has enhanced the rural environment, although British Telecom has erected additional telegraph poles for lines that were previously carried by the electricity poles.

Two weeks ago, I spent a day in Scarborough in my constituency with people from the Scarborough blind and partially sighted centre. I experienced what it is like to be blind. I wore glasses which almost entirely prevented me from seeing anything. The first 10 minutes were quite a novelty, but after that it was very difficult to get around. I was fortunate to have a lady holding me by the arm. The problem was not just the pavement cafes with their tables and chairs, cars parked on the pavement, or dog dirt, which blind people often have to contend with. The problem was also all the signposts that seem to sprout up from the pavement and cause blind people such difficulty.

In Scarborough we have non-drinking zones, or rather, zones where police can ask people to desist from drinking and, if necessary, confiscate drink. The problem facing Scarborough borough council when it brought the zones into force was that nobody noticed the signs. There were so many signs already that people did not notice the new ones. The council had to come up with a fluorescent green sign, which it hoped would be more noticeable. That has been only partially successful because there are so many signs around the town—advertising signs, road signs, parking signs and so on.

When a local authority advocates the common-sense approach suggested by my hon. Friend, it often finds that it becomes tied up in bureaucracy, rules and regulations. The Minister knows that Scarborough borough council has put in an application to decriminalise parking in the town. When it put in signs to remind people which zones are residents' zones and which zones are disc zones, it thought that in many cases it would make sense to use an existing pole—if there is a street lamp standard or speed limit sign, why not put the parking sign on the same post?

Unfortunately, that common-sense approach was undone by two enterprising former police officers with tape measures, who managed to overturn a number of fines for people, including members of their families, because the signs were, for example, 30 cm too far apart. Scarborough borough council has therefore had to put up new signs, despite nobody having been misled about the parking regime. Nobody has written to me saying, "I have been done. I did not realise that it was a two-hour disc zone. I did not realise that we had to pay to park." The regulations are so prescriptive that they do not allow local authorities to show a degree of discretion in putting up signs. If the Bill becomes law, I hope that we will examine co-ordinating the erection of street lighting and signs and the maintenance of parking regimes.

Scarborough borough council has done a lot of work, and although this matter may not be at the top of the Minister's in-tray, I hope that it is successful in getting its decriminalisation through, which will restore a little bit of sanity in Scarborough, where people are parking on yellow lines willy-nilly and there is a feeling that the parking regime is not being enforced. This may not happen today, but I look forward to the Minister letting me know that she has managed to look at the improvements in Scarborough.

I hope that we can use a bit of common sense. We already have bi-party support in the House, and perhaps the Minister can make that tri-party support. I think that people up and down the country would be pleased to see a little bit of common sense on the statute book for a change.

T

Dear MP Mr Goodwill

Yes there are "few people who have not noticed the plethora of signs that seem to proliferate around our cities, countryside and villages". The common-sense approach you refer to would have been not to add to the "plethora" of signs by the introduction of the green notices you have mentioned on many occasions in the house. The "non-drinking zones or rather, zones where police can ask people to desist from drinking and, if necessary, confiscate drink." do not send a clear message especially as the writing is impossible to read and the graphics more like an advertisement for a cartoon. They are abused by the local Whitby police force who repeatedly tells the community that we are in "a no alcohol zone", which we are not and demand drinks from members of the community who are being far from anti-social. The police had ample and sufficient powers to make demands on all anti-social behaviour with or without alcohol in their hands. The signs have been a waste of money and led to instances of police misuse and yet again alienating the local force from visitors and members of the local community.

Tom Brodrick
The Reading Room

Submitted by Thomas Brodrick

Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Secretary of State (Trade and Industry)

I omitted to say—I hope that this adds weight to what my hon. Friend has just said and persuades the Minister to support the Bill—that the Bill has the enthusiastic support of English Heritage, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the RAC Foundation, which is very thoughtful on road matters. I hope that the Government do not want to defy that good sense.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Opposition Whip (Commons)

We have discussed our streets being neat and uncluttered, and those words can also be used to describe my hon. Friend—I will not suggest which hon. Members could be used to describe the streets as they are at the moment.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport 1:38 pm, 27th April 2007

I assure Mr. Goodwill that there is plenty of common sense on the issue. I have no doubt that the principle behind Bill introduced by Alan Duncan is good, and I share his wish to see greater progress. I note that a range of organisations has expressed enthusiasm, which is understandable, but I respectfully suggest that that enthusiasm relates to the principle, the issue and the practice that is already in place, rather than a wish to see new legislation.

The Bill is unnecessary; it duplicates existing legislation; and given the drafting, it lacks the teeth to do the job. I understand why the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton wants to do the job, but the Bill does not make the right references. To the credit of the hon. Gentleman, he has paid tribute to a number of actions taken by the Department for Transport, for which I am grateful. However, I assure the House that action to improve and sustain highway design and the streetscape is absolutely a Government policy objective, and I shall be very happy to explain what we are doing about it in practice.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Opposition Whip (Commons)

Surely the whole point of the Bill is to remove swathes of legislation that place restrictions on the discretion of local authorities. The problem with parking is that the book is so thick that many local authorities do not always manage to comply with every letter of the law.

Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

The Bill is about signs in local areas. I believe, as I presume the hon. Gentleman does, that local matters are best dealt with locally.

Good design of roads and streets is a fundamental issue. We support the principle of avoiding unnecessary roadside clutter and minimising the environmental impact of traffic signs, as far as that is safe and reasonably practicable. The challenge at the national and local levels is to promote and deliver good practice. It is true that it is not unusual to see unnecessary or badly designed traffic management measures, traffic signs or other street furniture. However, improvements will not be delivered by the proposed legislation.

The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton implored us to put the Bill through Committee, but I note that he just voted against that for the Health and Safety (Offences) Bill.

Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

Then I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. There are certainly many hon. Members on his Benches who did do that, but I hope that he will forgive my error.

Streetscape and highway design have been rightly devolved to local authorities, other than on roads for which the Secretary of State is the highways authority, such as motorways, which are the responsibility of the Highways Agency. We have concerns that the proposed Bill has the potential to confuse practitioners, because of ambiguities about its application and duplication of existing legislation and guidance. The Secretary of State already provides guidance on streetscape and highways design, which is aimed at, and readily available to, highways authorities. We do not need new legislation to continue doing that. The Department for Transport provides guidance on a wide range of design issues through documents such local transport notes, traffic advisory leaflets, the "Traffic Signs Manual" and other good practice guides and manuals, including the recently published "Manual for Streets", to which I shall make further reference.

The proposed Bill would extend to Wales as well as England. However, the matters covered in the Bill are almost entirely devolved to the Welsh Assembly Government. The Highways Agency, an executive agency of the Department for Transport, designs and maintains roads in accordance with its "Design Manual for Roads and Bridges", which provides detailed design advice and standards. The advice is reviewed periodically to ensure that it is consistent with best practice. Further updates and chapters, including landscape and townscape assessment, are scheduled for publication over the next few years.

Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Secretary of State (Trade and Industry)

What the Minister is saying is absolutely accurate and I do not deny it for a second, but can she point to elements of guidance that encourage minimalist rather than brutalist designs? There seems to be no downward pressure in those guidelines, and that is what I am seeking.

Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has seen it, but I would refer him to the "Manual for Streets", which makes the exact point that he has just made.

Volume 10 of the "Design Manual for Roads and Bridges" includes urban design elements. Environmental design considerations have been an integral part of scheme development in the Highways Agency since its inception. The agency seeks to mitigate potentially adverse impacts and to take opportunities to enhance the environment, while of course taking account of value for money. The Department for Transport works with many other organisations to produce guidance on highway designs and improve the quality of highways and their surroundings. We heard earlier about the excellent work by English Heritage in "Streets for All", which has been applauded by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton, who was good enough to write to the Minister of State, Department for Transport, last year, making the same comments.

We accept the need for improvement, and we continue to develop further guidance. The House will wish to be made aware of three key projects that have a direct, positive impact. I have already referred to the first—the "Manual for Streets", which I launched at the end of March 2007 with the Institution of Highways and Transportation. It was drawn up with the full co-operation of stakeholders, including local authorities. It encourages a fresh approach to residential street design, and it demonstrates the Government's commitment to introduce changes to current design criteria to ensure that the designing of streets as attractive places in their own right is a priority. It gives guidance on the use of traffic signs and the importance of minimising street clutter.

The second project underpins further good practice guidance, specifically to address the concerns that have been expressed today about traffic signs, signals and the paraphernalia of local traffic management schemes, which may be excessive and detract from the streetscape. The new guidance is expected to be published in autumn this year. The third piece of work is advice covering the installation of pedestrian guard railing which, again, will be published later this year. All the guidance produced by the Department for Transport and its partners is aimed at, and is readily available to, local authorities and others. Publications are widely publicised and described on the Department's website. A number of them are available free of charge, and others are available for purchase from the relevant publisher, usually The Stationery Office.

Clause 2 requires highway authorities to publish

"in such manner as they consider appropriate, a policy on the...design of traffic signs and highway developments ('a design policy')."

The requirements in the clause are unnecessary, because local authorities are responsible for designing schemes to fit local circumstances, making important assessments—and this is all about balance—about the level of risk and the balance of social, environmental, economic and safety requirements. They already have a range of powers and duties under which they can maintain and improve the road network, manage its use and the activities that take place on it. We have a range of legislation, from the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 and the Traffic Management Act 2004 to the new Town and Country Planning (Control of Advertisements) (England) Regulations 2007 which, Norman Baker will be interested to know, came into force on 6 April this year. The skills of designers in that area have been called into question, and the Department is working with the Institute of Highway Incorporate Engineers Institute to promote a new qualification in traffic signing skills. The Department has also recently endorsed new computer software which, it is hoped, will help sign designers to use and understand the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2002 more easily.

Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Secretary of State (Trade and Industry)

If, for instance, a council has poor aesthetic judgment and appears indifferent to a contractor putting signs in the wrong place—perhaps on the edge of a kerb instead of on the back line of a road—to whom, under the guidelines, can people turn for redress?

Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

Clearly, the local authority is the responsible authority, and it is accountable to its electorate. In the debate, the hon. Gentleman expressed a wish that authorities or elected officials should be able to seek support. Obviously, they can do so. The Department for Transport is freely accessible to people who wish to call it, e-mail it, write to it, or look at its website, to offer the advice required. We must understand, however, that this is a local authority matter, and many of the hon. Gentleman's comments concerned the quality of the running of local authorities, so he may wish to pursue the matter elsewhere.

The hon. Gentleman raised, too, the accountability of highways officers, who are accountable to elected members of local authorities because they are local authority employees. One could make that comment about any local authority, so I do not think that it is necessary for the House to legislate in that regard.

Local transport plans also include a section on the importance of addressing quality of life issues, including the quality of public spaces and better streetscapes. The guidance specifically mentions the need for careful consideration to be given to the design and use of traffic management equipment. It makes it clear that local authority proposals should not just minimise adverse impacts on the physical environment but actively enhance it. It states that local authorities should ensure that their local transport plans minimise the impact of clutter on the street scene, and encourages the use of local street audits.

The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton referred to revising the Audit Commission's remit, which is not contained in his Bill. He also referred to the Rutland bypass and said that three quarters of signs were removed soon after its opening. That is why it has been included in the Department's streetscape project, leading to good practice guidance later this year. We are pleased that we have been able to play our part, and that Rutland has been so helpful.

Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Secretary of State (Trade and Industry)

I am grateful to the Minister for thanking Rutland. In turn, may I thank her and her Department for letting aspects of that design, such as minimalist street furniture on a roundabout, be part of a specific Department for Transport study? I hope that the contribution of my little county has been helpful in formulating the policies that will now come from her Department.

Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

That is something on which we are all in agreement.

The Bill is unnecessary, an over-regulation and a duplication. Under existing powers, the Secretary of State already provides guidance and advice on design of streetscape and highways, which is widely used by local authorities. Government planning policy already states that local planning authorities should publish local design policies. The Department for Transport's local transport plan guidance to local authorities explains the importance of better streetscapes and minimising street clutter, and encourages street audits.

I emphasise that local authorities are responsible for designing highway schemes to fit local circumstances, and already have a range of powers and duties to do so under existing legislation. As I have said, we should never forget that local authorities are accountable, and are encouraged to consult locally on new schemes. The challenge is for authorities to apply legislation and guidance through local policies in such a way that they contribute to the quality of public spaces, through good design, using street signs as and where appropriate and maintaining streets and highways. I therefore ask the House to oppose the Bill.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 10, Noes 10.

Division number 101 Orders of the Day — Streetscape and Highways Design Bill

Aye: 10 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

It appearing on the report of the Division that 40 Members were not present, Mr. Deputy Speaker declared that the Question was not decided, and the business under consideration stood over until the next sitting of the House.