No recent assessment of the effects on road safety of variable speed limits has been undertaken by the Department on local roads or by the Highways Agency on the strategic road network. However, the monitoring of safety on the active traffic management section of the M42 shows the benefits that have resulted from a package of measures which includes the use of variable speed limits.
Does the Minister not agree that our roads are safer if the speed limits in force are appropriate and therefore respected? Is he aware that a number of local authorities, some of them second rate, refuse to consider the introduction of variable speed limits, simply on the ground of the extra cost of the necessary signage? Will he therefore consider instructing or at least advising local authorities that they always reflect on whether a variable speed limit is the more appropriate answer? What is wrong with having a 20 mph speed limit outside a school only when that school is in use?
The right hon. Gentleman has a point to make. As he knows, we are consulting on our post-2010 road safety strategy, and we know that 20 mph limits are popular in many areas. They are a relatively new phenomenon and we are gathering evidence on the success that has clearly resulted from the introduction of 20 mph limits or zones. He also has a point in that those local authorities that have tried variable speed limits ought to be able to supply us with data so that we can incorporate them into the consultation, because we intend to issue new, stronger guidance both on 20 mph limits and, for local authorities where there is a 60 mph limit, on dangerous rural single carriageways. It is appropriate to have them revisit the issue, and variable speed limits, looking after the motorist and promoting safety, may very well be another way forward.
Most of the main roads in Skelmersdale do not have pavements, so people are forced to use underpasses—or often to cross the roads. In particular, there are two major secondary schools with 1,500 pupils, who, when discharged, are supposed to go through underpasses or take the back way. In reality, however, they cross the main road. A child has died, yet the local authority says—to the horror of the head teacher, the rest of the school and the parents—that because the road is a main road it cannot support a reduction in the speed limit. Can my hon. Friend's officials suggest anything to help us with traffic calming measures?
As I mentioned to Mr. Knight a moment ago, we are going to issue new, stronger guidance on the use of 20 mph limits and on appropriate speed limits for other roads. Clearly, I am concerned to hear my hon. Friend's description of roads without pavements and the vulnerable situation of many pupils. I hope that the Department's guidance will be of use to the head teacher and parents. However, we have devolved to local authorities the decision to determine the speed limits on roads because they know their roads far better than we do at the Department. However, I hope that the guidance that is to be issued will assist my hon. Friend and her community.
Is the Minister aware that in my constituency, which covers a very large area, there is strong support for strict enforcement of low speed limits in the villages, but real concern at the idea that 50 mph might become the default speed limit, given that it would apply to every road in the constituency, including large parts of the A1?
I understand the right hon. Gentleman's point. We have clarified as best we can that we are not proposing a blanket ban or reduction from 60 mph to 50 mph on single rural carriageways. However, given that 62 per cent. of fatalities occur on roads with only 40 per cent. of the traffic, we clearly believe that the 60 mph limit is inappropriate for some roads. In the consultation document that we have issued, we propose to produce annual reports on the performance of roads, indicating where there are greater dangers.
We will issue stronger guidance to say to local authorities that there is no national 60 mph limit and that there can be 50 mph limits if appropriate. Many villages on these routes would certainly want 20 mph and 30 mph limits. I go back to the point made by the right hon. Gentleman in the original question: we need flexibility to make sure that motorists are able to get from A to B as efficiently as possible. However, we also need to make sure that they do that safely, and that the communities through which they travel are protected.
Will the Minister condemn unequivocally those local authorities that adopt a policy of reducing speed by not repairing pot holes, thereby deliberately contributing to an increase in road danger and costing local authority council tax payers £53 million a year in compensation?
I have heard and read reports of pot holes being used as a device to reduce speed, but I cannot believe that a deliberate decision by local authorities is involved. Pot holes endanger road users because vehicles may have to veer to avoid them; furthermore, they may damage vehicles' braking and steering systems. Clearly, pot holes ought to be repaired where possible. The Government give local authorities generous grants to make sure that such matters are addressed. I do not want local authorities to use pot holes as a way of slowing down traffic.