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Smart Motorways - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:49 pm on 13th February 2020.

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Photo of Lord Fairfax of Cameron Lord Fairfax of Cameron Conservative 3:49 pm, 13th February 2020

My Lords, I also thank my noble friend very much for bringing this debate on a pressing current issue. I first thought of speaking in this debate because, like many drivers, I have experienced the congestion that has occurred during the construction of these motorways. That would have been fine if one had ended up with a really good product in the end, but as we have heard from some speeches already, that is the opposite of the case. Also, of course, like other drivers, I have seen exactly how dangerous the abolition of the hard shoulder obviously is: it is simply common sense. However, having looked at it in a little more detail in preparation for speaking, I see that the situation is actually far worse.

As noble Lords have heard, 38 people have died on smart motorways in the past five years and there has apparently been an almost 2,000% increase in the number of near-misses on one section of the M25. Even more worrying, I read that two former Roads Ministers have gone on record as saying that they were misled—a strong word—by the Highways Agency about the safe spacing of refuge lay-bys on smart motorways. They were told that these would appear every 500 metres when there was all-lane running, whereas in fact they have been every mile and a half or so. The Police Federation has also gone on record as saying that it has always opposed the introduction of smart motorways on safety grounds. The Highways Agency has apparently introduced radar technology to detect broken-down vehicles, but on only 25 miles out of a total of 400 miles of the smart motorway network, contrary to its pledge of 100%.

In these circumstances, it is no wonder that the Highways Agency is facing legal claims for corporate manslaughter arising from some of the tragic deaths on smart motorways. I also read that more than 250,000 people have signed a petition to have smart motorways stopped. I know that my family, for one, feels exactly this way. I have to say that in my view, given all these facts and the speeches that have been made this afternoon, I find the word “smart” somewhat offensive. I think it is originally an American word, and I am partly American, so I am familiar with it. There is a word beginning with “d” and ending with “b” that is the opposite of “smart” if you are an American, and I suggest that that word is more appropriate to the situation. In more parliamentary language, it is certainly reckless and perhaps very ill advised.

In closing, I put two questions to the Minister, and I am not necessarily looking for an answer this afternoon. First, how much has the construction of the smart motorway network cost to date, including the economic cost of all the traffic delays and congestion caused by that construction? Secondly, we have heard about the 38 people who have tragically died on the smart motorway network in the past five years. In addition to that, how many people have been injured or seriously injured?