I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
It gives me pleasure to move the new clause. The Bill is intended to improve traffic flows on our roads and particularly on the main routes, which carry the bulk of traffic. It is common ground in the Committee that one big obstacle to the safe and reasonable progress of traffic is the entering into roads of the authorities to carry out streetworks. The Highways Agency and its contractors often impose substantial impediments to progress on our motorways and trunk roads. Over recent years, efforts have been made under Governments of both persuasions to introduce better practice, but it would be a good idea for the Committee briefly to consider the issue and to make explicit provision to limit the agency's scope to cause congestion and chaos during a busy working day.
The amendment has two implications for costs. First, there is the cost to the taxpayer, which will go up to a modest extent because there will be more night working. However, there will be an enormous saving to the business community and the wider community because congestion will be reduced during the business day. It is most important that the Government and Parliament consider both aspects. We are here to serve the public, and the businesses of our country generate the wealth that pays the taxes that pay for public services. Under the present system, highway works are undertaken during busy days, so there is a modest saving to the taxpayer in terms of the tax money that has to be disbursed. However, there is also a big increase in the other costs to taxpayers.
On the contrary—I am saying that it could provide a stealth rebate to businesses, which would no longer have to meet the congestion costs that the Government and Labour Members are usually very willing to calculate when they argue for a green agenda. In the nicest possible way, I am a very green Conservative and I believe that we need green policies to take account of pollution, congestion and chaos. That sometimes involves an immediate price, but Labour Members should remember that they often urge us to pay a much higher price than I am suggesting to achieve those aims.
If I can finish dealing with one hon. Gentleman, I will of course take an intervention from another. It is a great pleasure to see Labour Members' interest and enthusiasm sparked after a fairly dull sitting.
Although more night working might increase the cost of highway works somewhat, because people often want higher wages to work over night, the other point to remember is that there will be no similar increase in the cost of plant utilisation. Indeed, it might be cheaper to rent plant over night and for it to go to a building site during the day to ensure maximum utilisation. There could, therefore, be a saving.
A saving will undoubtedly be made in terms of the work that will need to be done to deal with the pressures that are created by traffic flows and with the safety issues that arise when a congested motorway is shared by busy business users trying to do their daily jobs and those who are trying to enter into highways works. It is therefore quite wrong for Labour Members to suggest that the cost will all go one way. Some costs will be reduced.
On Second Reading, I drew attention to the plight of my constituents whose Christmas peace was destroyed by the noise from Newport Pagnell service station. Would the proposal not cause problems in areas in which people live adjacent to trunk roads and motorways? How does the hon. Gentleman propose to deal with the disruption to the lives of those people?
As the new clause makes clear, weekend working need not be restricted to the hours of darkness. I would hope that, wherever possible, the Highways Agency would put in place noise suppression measures in order to take care of that issue. Fortunately, most stretches of trunk road and motorway in our country do not go past or through residential areas. However, the hon. Gentleman has made a good point; there are some short sections of motorway and trunk road in urban areas—I have some in my constituency—and I would, of course, want noise suppression to play an important part in any highway works.
The Minister must recognise, however, that there is already a lot of night working on our highway network; presumably the Government addressed the noise problem when they allowed agencies to undertake it. It is not a showstopper—there are ways of dealing with noise that would allow the new clause to make sense and to guarantee in all cases the observance of the good practice of not digging up
major roads at the time when they are most needed by the public who have paid for them.
How often is my suggested good practice used? I am sure that the Minister, being an honest man, will tell us that it already takes place. I know to my cost, having tried to use the motorway and trunk road network in the evenings and late at night when we have a proper Parliament and are detained here for a reasonable length of time, or when I am going about the country making informative speeches to people in connection with my parliamentary or political duties, that such practice is observed. I plan my route carefully and then discover that the principal trunk route or motorway that I wished to use, as the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston has found, has been either completely closed or disrupted, because the Highways Agency has seen the point of working at night.
It would also be good if the Highways Agency, wherever possible, decided that it did not have to shut the whole motorway or trunk road in order to carry out night works, as often seems to be the case at the moment, but merely closed one or two lanes and allowed traffic to continue to flow. There might be a trade-off with the cost issue that we were discussing earlier. An advantage of night working that made it cheaper could be that the whole motorway could be closed for four or five hours at a time when not many people want to use it, and the job could be done faster and more easily than with a big chunk of the motorway open during the busy working day.
My idea is simple, and it builds on current good practice. The cost argument against it is poor because of the compensating reductions both to the Government and more especially to private sector users of the highway. The noise question is important, and we have already had to confront it in relation to a lot of night working on our highway. The answer is noise suppression and better technology for the kind of roadworks that we wish to do. It makes sense to speed up roadworks by maximising the use that can be made of the equipment at any given time so that, when it is noisy, the period over which the noise is heard by residents in urban areas is reduced.
Debate adjourned.—[Gillian Merron.]
Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Six o'clock till Tuesday 10 February at half-past Two o'clock.