Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Smart Motorways - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:37 pm on 13th February 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport) 3:37 pm, 13th February 2020

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, for introducing this debate. She spoke with great passion and I agree profoundly with her sentiments.

In the face of rising motorway congestion, the vision of a lower-cost way of expanding our motorways was very tempting, but careful safeguards were built in right at the beginning. Unfortunately, that vision was compromised, as the noble Baroness said, by cost- cutting measures. A key one was a reduction in the frequency of safety lay-bys. Although they were originally envisaged to be every 600 metres, we now hear of one example where they are 2.5 miles apart. We are informed that the frequency of lay-bys was reduced to shave 2% off the cost of a motorway. If we compare that with the cost overrun on HS2, for example, it puts it in perspective.

Safety in the vision of smart motorways depended on four factors: frequent safety lay-bys; the use of radar to enable virtually instant identification of stationary cars in the inside lane, so that the lane could be closed; regular and frequent highway patrols; and widespread public education about how to use these motorways. None of these has happened in the way it should have—and that change of policy occurred not with public debate but by stealth. People, as the noble Baroness pointed out, have died as a result. One of the most worrying statistics about smart motorways is the number of near-misses. Noble Lords who have driven along them will know that they are very scary.

I strongly welcome the Secretary of State’s stocktake. It is absolutely essential and I fully support it. Will it be published and, if so, when? I asked a Written Question on this, but the Answer did not include that information. It is essential that this stocktake is done as soon as possible and that the information is published. It must set new clear standards for smart motorways, and I would urge an annual review of the effectiveness of those standards.

There is recent information that it will be three years before we see radar on the stretches that have already been installed. To my mind, that is far too long; we cannot have three years of unsafe operation. The Government should return these stretches of road to hard shoulders again until radar is installed—I urge the Minister to consider this.

I asked the previous Minister about the M20 in the run-up to Brexit preparations. The reply I got was that it was as safe as other contraflows. Contraflows are temporary arrangements, and it worries me that the Government are perhaps using two different standards for measuring the safety of smart motorways. Can the Minister update us on the situation on the M20 and the permanence of all-lane running there? In the short term, one solution to the problems faced on smart motorways is that the speed limit could be reduced significantly. Are the Government considering that as a solution? It is of course important that those speed limits are properly enforced.

Finally, I raise the issue of electric vehicles. When an electric vehicle ceases to function, it stops; it does not coast in the way that other vehicles do. Smart motorways are supposed to be the future, but the future is electric. Those vehicles stop very suddenly. They also cannot be towed; they have to be put on a low-loader, which is a much more complex and longer process that will put rescue teams in greater danger. So can we have special consideration for how these new motorway layouts will operate when there are lots of electric vehicles on the road?