‘( ) Before appointing a strategic highways company the Secretary of State must consult all highways authorities in the area to be specified under section 1(a) responsible for roads in that area other than the roads specified under 1(b). This consultation must cover—
(a) the structure of the new organisation;
(b) the appointment of at least one non-executive director representing those authorities to the board of the new company; and
(c) any other matter which the Secretary of State deems relevant.”
With this amendment I am trying to propose that the Government think, quite seriously, about the kind of road network that we are creating for the future. It has often been said in the debate on the Bill—on Second Reading, in the other place and here today—that the state of our road network is critical for our economy and for society more broadly. It is critical for getting goods and materials from A to B, and for connecting people with their work, opportunities, and each other. That is where amendment 8 comes in because the Bill, as it stands, is about improving 2% of our road network. That is needed and it is particularly important that we get the strategic highways network correct for freight and businesses but it begs the question: what about the rest?
Around 67% of traffic is on local roads—not strategic roads—and they are straining under that pressure. A pothole epidemic is blighting journeys for all road users and leaving 51% of the public unhappy with the condition of their local roads, and the latest departmental statistics show that average speed during the morning peak on local authority managed A roads has continued to decrease since 2011 despite the fact that traffic volume has remained broadly stable since 2010. I would like to think that that is drivers showing a great amount of speed awareness but I suspect that it is not to do with that but with road condition and congestion. The road investment strategy identifies that increasing urbanisation will put even more pressure on our towns and cities in the future. The Government predict a 61% increase in congestion on the local road network in the coming period. We do not want to spoil the party but the Government’s claim that the reforms in the Bill will
“deliver the safer, more stress-free journeys that everyday users desire” does not really stack up in practice when we consider the actual journeys that people make. Even if people end up using the strategic road network, or use it in the middle of their journey, largely they start and end on local roads. It is normally a local road that is outside people’s front doors or workplaces.
The Department has tried to look at that in some ways in the road investment strategy because they commissioned a public survey. If I am quoting correctly, I understand that it found:
“If all roads were in comparable condition, users believe that investment in the SRN”— the strategic road network—
“should be prioritised”.
Local roads face a 12-year pothole backlog: in other words, at the current rate, it would take 12 years, and about £12 billion, to fix the potholes that blight our local roads. It is clear to me that the public are not happy with their local road networks, and they want something to be done.
As many people have told me—by which I mean organisations from the Royal Automobile Club to the Local Government Association—the trouble with the Bill, unless an amendment like ours is made, is that it risks making a bad situation worse. The Government are putting strategic roads management at arm’s length. If it works and the Government’s claims are right, it will provide the strategic road network with stable and long-term funding, but at the same time, local authorities, which face a real-terms decline in road maintenance by 2020 and myriad different bidding points for local transport, will have no clarity or long-term investment. Local authorities have been warning that that two-tier system, with targets to increase efficiency and achieve mile-a-minute speeds on strategic roads, will push more and more traffic on to local roads, worsening congestion there.
We are pleased that the Government have conceded that the company has a clear duty to co-operate with local highways and planning authorities. That is a good thing, and it is now on the face of the Bill in clause 4, as well as in the draft licence. However, we need closer co-operation now, and we will need it even more with the new company. We should be considering new ways to make it work. I took on board what the Minister said earlier about trying to address the assumption that elected politicians are not necessarily in touch with everyday concerns. We in this place need to remember that we are not the only elected politicians around. Local authorities are there too. Their members are just as elected as we are, they are just as in touch with ordinary concerns and they know that the condition of local roads is a problem.
That is why the amendment proposes that the new company should establish a new level of local and strategic co-operation by ensuring that highways authorities are consulted at the highest level of strategic highways decision making and requiring that local authorities be represented at board level so that the voice of the local network is heard at the important time when decisions are being framed and discussed, as well as after they have been made and local authorities must put up with the consequences. I hope that the Minister will consider seriously the provisions in the amendment.
“The fool wonders, the wise man asks.”
He is right to ask these questions.
These are a few facts on what we are doing with local roads, so that they are on the record. We are very clear that, while local roads remain the responsibility of local councils, they matter. We recognise their importance to the rate of growth locally and nationally and their impact on the lives of millions of people. The relationship between local roads and the national road network, about which we have been speaking up till now, is of course fundamental. My constituency in Lincolnshire benefits when we improve the A1. However, people are also concerned about non-trunk roads, because they are vital in getting to the A1, which is the main arterial route affecting hauliers and motorists in my constituency. That is why I have taken up the cause of the A16 and A17, which need further work and improvement. I have no doubt that every single Member of this Committee has a similar story to tell about local roads in their constituency.
Some £168 million has been made available to local councils for potholes. As the Committee knows, the pothole fund was announced in the Budget this year and applies to the year 2014-15. By the way, that is in addition to the regular funding provided to councils for local highways maintenance. This was a particular pot of money for potholes, one might say, because of the concerns that the hon. Gentleman raised—which are reflected by concerns that my wife often raises about potholes when she goes about her daily business. If I mention her early on in our consideration, that will serve me well before Christmas.
The fund was a competition and all councils eligible to do so submitted a bid. In total the Department for Transport received 148 bids for a share of that funding. As I said, it will repair temporarily about 3 million potholes across the country.
May I press the Minister about pothole funding? As far as the logic in the strategic road network is concerned, the emphasis is on the long term: certainty, forward planning and so on. When it comes to potholes and local roads it is a bit of a lottery and there is competition. Given that the funding is coming from the top-slicing of existing budgets, does he really think that that is getting the idea of long-term thinking to local authorities? As far as I can tell, it is not new money. As well as that, what happens if one is using a local road in an authority that has not won in the competition, which still has potholes?
As I said, the pothole fund is in addition to the funding that local authorities receive for highways maintenance. The Government have provided £4.7 billion for councils in this Parliament for local highways maintenance. That is about 27% more than the last Parliament provided. Of course, there needs to be long-term funding that allows local authorities to plan highways maintenance over time. The pothole fund was an addition that allows for short-term repairs that are necessary to deal with the urgency that potholes represent.
To put this on the record, the Minister says that spending on local road maintenance increased under this Government. Is it not the case that that depends on how one looks at it? Under the previous Government, from 2005 to 2010, we were spending £4.5 billion annually on local authority roads. He says that that recently went up to £4.7 billion, but it was cut to £3.4 billion in 2011-12, so it is arguable that by 2020 the net effect on local roads will have been a cut, certainly in real terms and perhaps, if averaged out over the whole period, in cash terms as well. Either way, there is a real problem that requires long-term thinking about local roads.
The hon. Gentleman is right about long-term thinking. As he knows, that is one reason why we established the highways maintenance efficiency programme in 2011. It is fair to say that local councils do need Government support in terms of asset management, advice on procurement, the potential brought by collaboration, sharing good practice and greater efficiency. We established the programme in order to try to bring about exactly that: greater co-ordination and collaboration and the better sharing of good practice. He is right that it is about long-term planning as well as money. In those terms, his amendment, the motivation for which I understand, makes a helpful contribution to the debate inasmuch as it draws attention to the relationship between the long-term planning that we seek nationally for the major roads that are within the remit of the Highways Agency and the same kind of long-term thinking about local roads.
I know that we are not supposed to comment on interventions, Mr Hood, but there was a financial crisis so it was understandable that budgets were cut in the early years of this Parliament. Notwithstanding that, will my hon. right Friend join me in congratulating Essex county council, which in the past 24 months has done a stellar job of dealing with potholes not only in Braintree but throughout Essex? The council has allocated in excess of £4 million to deal with potholes, which are a blight on all our roads, particularly those in the country.
I am delighted to acknowledge Essex county council’s work in that respect, and that my hon. Friend has paid tribute to it. He has illustrated the understanding of the relationship between national and local politicians that the shadow Minister invited us to have. When we work together, we work most effectively—all those elected, standing together to do their best by the people they serve. I think that at the heart of the shadow Minister’s amendment is the desire to ensure that local decisions are made in concert with the plans set out by the Government for the national road network. As he says, the road investment strategy contains directions to take proper account of the effect of the strategy on local roads, but we might go further than that.
I have asked my officials to look at what more can be done to ensure proper co-ordination between what is done locally and nationally. We might be able to add something to the documents that we already have, or we might have to conduct a parallel exercise in which we look at those parts of the network that are affected most significantly by some of the announcements we have made in the road investment strategy and the effect of those announcements on local plans. I mentioned the circumstances in my constituency; many Committee members will face similar circumstances in their own.
It seems to me essential that we use this opportunity to catalyse some fresh thinking about the interface to which the amendment draws our attention. As I suggested earlier, part of the answer might be to look at best practice and see how best it can be exported. My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree mentioned Essex; I have no doubt that there will be good examples of local highways authorities developing their plans in response to the road investment strategy. That will oblige them to think through exactly how their local plan is affected by what we announce. However, I am sure that some authorities will lead that process and will be at the apex of that thinking. One way that we perhaps have to move forward is to take that best practice and find ways in which we can share it.
The Minister is sitting on an important point. I have focused my remarks on the need for local authorities to feel involved and to have their needs recognised, but he is right; that is not just a reactive thing. There is a lot of good practice out there, and having the right kinds of mechanism to spread that more widely would be a really good thing. I absolutely do not expect him to come back today with a definite yes or no. However, one suggestion in this amendment is that as well as having mechanisms to spread best practice, we could look at the appointment of a non-executive director from the local authority sector to the new company. There would then be a permanent voice which might provide a conduit to ensure the links that I am sure we both want to see. Will he consider that carefully?
The spirit of that proposal is certainly reflected in the development of our thinking. We have amended the legislation, as the hon. Gentleman knows, to require co-operation between all of England’s highways and traffic authorities and the new body. We are also including provisions on co-operation and consultation with relevant stakeholders in the statutory directions and guidance, the latest draft of which the hon. Gentleman will have seen. We published it recently, and there is a copy in the Library of the House. That is obviously in addition to what we inherited. The Traffic Management Act 2004 already sets out a statutory requirement that binds all highways authorities and Highways England’s co-operation responsibilities as a traffic authority.
The spirit that lies behind the hon. Gentleman’s amendment is very much aligned with the development of our own thinking. Our public consultation on the proposals, which we launched a year or so ago, gave local highways authorities the opportunity to put forward their views on not only the structure of the company but on all proposals for the running of the strategic road network. Our response, published in April this year, took those views into account and this legislation is built on that response. That phrase—“running of the strategic road network”—is key. Highways England will be responsible for running the strategic road network in England, and local councils will retain their role in respective of local roads, in case there is any doubt or fear about that.
The two do meet, though, do they not? There are junctions where the strategic meets the local. There needs to be absolute clarity about the mechanisms there. Local authorities would not love the Minister if he created an authority whereby, for example, at a particular junction, there was no mechanism for local input to come into the design.
That is a good point. I talk about the interface between the two, but the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston draws attention to a direct and literal interface between major roads of the kind dealt with in the road investment strategy and local roads, which may be significant in their own right. When we talk about local roads, we are talking about a very broad description. There is an issue with how the new body will deal with those points of connection that he has identified. It will need to engage closely with local authorities, as the Highways Agency does at the moment. It is critical that it does so to achieve its wider objective of running the strategic road network. That is why we have included both co-operation and consultation in the provisions.
In respect of the kind of examples highlighted by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston, I would look to the new body to engage closely with the local body to see exactly what needed to be done, how it would be done and who would do it. The duty to engage and consult on that basis must be central to the new body’s work because, simply on the grounds of efficiency and effectiveness, to do anything other than that would be inappropriate.
A good point, but what happens in the event of a dispute between the strategic body and the local body? Who will arbitrate?
In the end, as I mentioned earlier, in the event of a dispute I am happy for Ministers to engage. I talked about particularities and the need for Ministers not to be frightened to involve themselves in the particularities of the delivery of our strategic objectives. That is the kind of particularity that I had in mind. Such matters would be brought to the attention of a local Member of Parliament or of a local authority, and I have no doubt that they would not be slow in making representations to Government. That is the normal course of events. If things could not be solved, although in most cases they would be through the process of co-operation that I described, there would ultimately be a power for Ministers to become involved if the matter became disputatious in the way that the hon. Gentleman has described.
The fundamental flavour lying at the heart of the amendment is dealt with by the arrangements that the Government are putting in place. In a sense, the amendment is mixing two objectives. Ensuring that Highways England is efficiently managed in terms of its objectives is different from ensuring that it co-operates with local highways and traffic authorities. There is a joined-up approach. We do not need to undermine the governance in order to ensure that the latter happens, provided that there is a clear duty of the kind that I have described to consult and to co-operate. The company will be governed not only by our directional guidance and framework documents, but by its articles of association, which will be put in place by its sole shareholder, the Secretary of State.
The focus of Highways England’s board will be to ensure the proper operation, maintenance and improvement of the strategic road network, and any directors will be responsible for carrying out those functions. An important part of the board’s responsibilities will be to ensure that, between them, the members of the board have the breadth of experience and skills required to lead a company with such a breadth of stakeholders and duties, including those I have detailed above.
I am therefore not convinced that it is necessary to have a local highways representative on the board, although it would be useful to have members of the board who had direct experience of local highways matters. Indeed, I would be surprised if we did not have such representation on the board, because, frankly, most roads are local. Understanding and experience of involvement in those local roads—whether private or public sector—would be of immense value to the board. We might, however, go further in pulling local authorities together; in examining the particular parts of the country where the announcement has been made already, perhaps creating new challenges; and in looking at how we can identify and share best practice. I am happy to go away and look at all those things as a result of our discussion and of the moving of the amendment.
I invite Government Members to resist the amendment as drafted, but the spirit from which it emerged and the sentiment that it summates are close to the Government’s thinking. I am prepared to look further, even beyond what we have already done, to ensure that there is proper co-operation between those responsible for the national road network and those responsible for local roads.