'The Highways Agency shall carry out any works to motorways and trunk roads entailing the closure or narrowing of lanes after 8 pm and before 6 am or at weekends.'.—[Mr. Redwood.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
Question proposed [5 February], That the clause be read a Second time.
Question again proposed.
May I first thank you, Miss Begg, and welcome you back to the Committee? This may or may not be the Committee's last sitting—we will see how progress goes. I hope that the fact that we did not sit this morning accommodated the needs of the members of the Committee. The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) made interesting points on Second Reading, some of which had considerable merit. I hope that this sitting of the Committee will not prove too much of a disappointment to him. A discussion of some of the issues that he has raised will be very helpful.
New clause 2 would require the Highways Agency to carry out any works to motorways and trunk roads entailing the closure or narrowing of lanes after 8 pm and before 6 am or at weekends. We share the idea of wanting to minimise the amount of disruption caused by roadworks for the general benefit of all road users. That is the Bill's ambition. Although only 10 per cent. of congestion on the strategic network is caused by roadworks, the Highways Agency, like the right hon. Gentleman, is keen to minimise disruption caused by those roadworks. The agency has targets within its business plan to avoid wherever possible carrying out roadworks at peak times. It aims to ensure that at least 98.5 per cent. of lanes are available in peak hours. Although the intention of the new clause is to minimise the disruption in relation to roadworks, the proposals are not practical and could, in some cases, have the opposite effect to that which is desired by the mover of the new clause.
Network occupancy and the traffic management arrangements for maintenance and improvement schemes are planned to minimise disruption to traffic, avoid conflict between adjacent schemes and ensure safety for both road users and the work force. I mention the work force, because there are an alarming
number of incidents involving those working on the roads being killed and injured. We must look after the interests of those working on the roads as well.
By its very nature, routine maintenance, such as safety fence repairs and gully emptying, is carried out mainly at night or at other times when traffic flows are low. Simple resurfacing schemes—for example, resurfacing lane one—can also be done at night, because lane closures for such work are relatively easy to install and remove.
Other works cannot be undertaken solely at night. A good example is the replacement of central reservation bridge piers carried out recently on the M6 in Cheshire. This required temporary propping of the bridge deck to allow traffic to continue to use the bridge over the M6. This required barriers to prevent vehicle impact with the temporary props and their potential collapse. It is totally impractical, unsafe and expensive to install and remove the traffic management and the propping overnight. That would be vastly expensive, and it is doubtful whether the work could take place at all.
When the Highways Agency has to occupy the carriageway, it uses narrow lanes wherever possible—often keeping three narrow lanes on a normal three-lane motorway. It has to balance the need to maintain capacity with the need to provide the necessary clearances for working space and the health and safety of the work force on the road. Narrow lanes have the effect of hemming in drivers, reducing speeds and improving the safety of road users and work force. To have fixed times for carrying out works enshrined in legislation, as the new clause would do, is impractical. The timing should take account of the nature of the work, the traffic flow patterns on the individual route, the number of lanes available and other considerations such as special events like major football matches or other events that may be taking place in the area.
On our busiest motorways, 8 pm may be too early and 6 pm too late. For example, Manchester airport asks for any closures to be lifted by 4 am in the morning, because 4 to 5 am is the busiest time for people approaching the airport. That pattern may be true in other areas as well. Peak traffic flows at weekends can be as high as those on week days, but occur at different times of the day. On some routes, particularly those subject to seasonal variations such as those in my part of the world—and if anyone is thinking of taking a holiday, I assure them that Devon and Cornwall are extremely attractive places to visit if they are not contemplating a holiday abroad this year—or Blackpool, the Lake district and other areas, the highest flows are on Fridays and Sunday afternoons and sometimes the evenings.
In my constituency from late July to early September, heavy traffic from the north, the midlands and London pours through at 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning, as people head towards the surfing waves of Cornwall. The proposals would be impractical for routes such as the A30 or the A38 into the west country.
I hope that the right hon. Member for Wokingham is reassured that the Government are being proactive in tackling that sort of congestion. It is something that the Government and the Highways Agency—our agent in this work—consider a very serious issue. To have fixed times, as proposed in the new clause, would be impractical and could have the opposite effect from that desired.
I am grateful to the Minister for his considered reply. He has a good point on the question of bridge piers and the need for bridge strengthening. I am not so persuaded by his other arguments. I am naturally pleased that he agrees that minimising the disruption caused by lane closures and road closures at busy times of the day is an important aim and something that the Highways Agency should take into account when deciding what works to undertake and when to do them. I trust that that means that he will redouble his enthusiasm for limiting the number of lane closures and road closures at busy times of day in pursuit of our shared aim of reducing congestion.
The Minister says that 8 pm might be too early to start road works in the evening, and 6 pm too late to cease them in the morning. Of course, that is true: I was trying to come up with a judgment of Solomon, leaving enough time for the roadworks to be carried out without impinging on the busy times of day. I think that the Minister would agree that in most cases, on most motorways and trunk roads, the busiest hours are those of the morning and evening peak. The morning peak starts just after 6 am and the evening peak usually subsides before 8 pm. I would defend those hours as a balance between what is needed to provide reasonable access to the highway for those maintaining and repairing it, and those using it to keep the wheels of commerce and activity turning through the busy times of the working week.
The Minister is right that, on a limited number of holiday routes in the UK at busy times of the year, the flows can be high at the weekend. I trust that the Highways Agency would take that fully into account when deciding on weekend working across its network. What I hoped to put into law was a requirement that the times that are very busy on most roads—the morning, evening and, sometimes, middle-of-the-day peaks in the working week—should be protected and that holiday periods should be left to the agency's judgment.
On flexibility, it may be helpful to point out that the Highways Agency often ceases all roadworks at all times of the day—if possible and if not emergency work—in the summer when it expects heavy traffic, particularly in the south-west, for the very reason that the roads are heavily used nearly 24 hours a day.
I am pleased to hear that, but there could be more progress in that direction. I am sure that all of us who take holidays in the United Kingdom have had experiences from time to time that disprove that anecdotally.
My new clause would not stop the Highways Agency from protecting weekend busy times at holiday destinations; indeed, I would urge it to do so. I thought that such a suggestion would be more difficult to embody in law, as we would need to define the busy holiday destination roads. That would cause all sorts of difficulties in drafting and debating. Avoiding roadworks on busy holiday roads would be a welcome addition to my proposal, but it would be more difficult to incorporate in legislation.
In view of what the Minister said, I would like to think further about the new clause and perhaps bring it back with drafting that reflects his good point about bridges, but still protects the rest of the network from unnecessary road repairs at busy times of the working week. I remain very much of the view that there are still examples of the rules not being observed by the Highways Agency in carrying out its works and that we would have less congestion if they were observed. If we offered legislative guidance, it would make it more likely that they would be followed.
In spite of the good counter-examples that the Minister has given, most of us know from our experience that most congestion occurs at peak hours in the working week that lie outside the normal hours of darkness between 8 pm and 6 am. Just as the main runway at Heathrow would normally be resurfaced at night and not during the working day, so the main trunk roads, which are such important commercial arteries, should be similarly treated. Therefore, as I should like to improve the new clause even more in the hope that it might attract the Minister's support. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.