Motor Cycles (Highways Act)

– in Westminster Hall at 12:30 pm on 19th July 2005.

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Photo of Ashok Kumar Ashok Kumar Labour, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland 12:30 pm, 19th July 2005

I thank Mr. Speaker for granting me this short Adjournment debate. I welcome the Minister. This is my first opportunity to say a few words to her.

I want to raise an important issue that affects my constituency. I refer to what was—until this year—the annual Saltburn motor cycle hill climb. I want to say a few words about the history of the event and then focus on the difficulties that exist. The event was a contest of speed and time for vintage and classic motor cycles and attracted up to 85 solo bikes and motor cycle combinations every year. The race was the inheritor of a 100-year proud motor racing tradition in the small seaside resort of Saltburn, which is located in the east Cleveland part of my constituency.

One hundred years ago—almost exactly to the month—the first Saltburn motor race took place on the fine town beach. It was sponsored by a local garage owner, and attracted crowds of thousands from the nearby Teesside towns. Saltburn sands—along with the Pendine sands in south Wales—were reckoned by the great racing drivers of the day to be the best surface for displays of speed in the entire UK. This history of motor racing developed under the wing of the Yorkshire Automobile Club from 1906 onwards.

In the inter-war years, some of the greatest names in British motor sport raced on Saltburn sands. The Guinness family and the Younger family—both brewing dynasties—had young sons who loved fast cars and the thrill of speed. They were joined at Saltburn by the famous competition drivers of the day, such as Malcolm Campbell and Parry Thomas. It was at this time that the first motor cycle races took place. Indeed, it is said that T. E. Lawrence—otherwise known as Lawrence of Arabia—who was a keen motor cyclist, once took part in a local event.

Following the end of the second world war, and the development of purpose-built racing circuits such as Silverstone and Brands Hatch, racing on the sands ceased, but motor cycle hill scrambles from Saltburn up into to the hills continued. These events were sponsored throughout the '50s by the then Saltburn urban district council and with the backing of local landowners such as Lord Zetland and his family. The hill climb remained a proud tradition and was recreated in 1993. In that year, the Middlesbrough and District motor club approached the local authorities to see whether it could relaunch an annual vintage and classic motor cycle hill climb. It was planned to hold it at the same time as the town's Victorian week, a celebration of the resort's Victorian heritage as a planned seaside town.

The type of bikes entered sound like a roll call of the lost British motor cycle industry. Their names ran from the ABC motor cycle to the Zenith motor cycle, along with more familiar names such as AJS, Sunbeam, Rudge, Quadrant, BSA, the mighty Norton Dominator and the Brough Superior—the biggest and possibly the noisiest motor cycles built in the UK. Well-known names in motor cycling such as Geoff Duke also took part in some of the events.

The hill climb took place along the length of Saltburn bank and Saltburn lane. That is a steep route climbing at an almost one-in-seven gradient from Saltburn's beach up to the Victorian gardens of Rushpool hotel, a former home of the Bell family who were major ironmasters on Teesside. The road was chosen because of the hill and because it is a very minor public highway. It is an unclassified country lane, and the local council tells me that the latest traffic counts show fewer than 1,500 movements on the road in any one 24-hour period. Consequently, the required road closure orders were easy to implement.

The local police, the local authorities and the local community gave solid backing to the new hill race series as it was seen as important to the town's tourist economy. Over the years, the race grew in popularity, and it is estimated that there were between 4,000 and 5,000 spectators at both the start and finish of the hill climb. That meant that the town virtually doubled in size on hill climb days, and those were people spending cash in a town that badly needed trade and tourist investment.

The hill climb became the Middlesbrough and District motor club's one big annual event and quickly became fixed in the Teesside sporting and tourist calendar until, I am afraid, earlier this year. That was when it was found out that due to the existence of a little known piece of legislation—much of it enacted via statutory instruments—the race was illegal and, in fact, had been illegal from the first day that it was run. That was as much of a shock to the Cleveland police and the Redcar and Cleveland borough council as to the hill climb organisers.

Sincere apologies, red faces and deep unhappiness were the order of the day from both the police and the council. The event is licensed under the rigorous safety requirements imposed by the Auto-Cycle Union and fully supported by Saltburn's parish council. The event is also a way of advertising both the motor cycle training offered by the council and the work of police's motor cycle section.

That is when the motor club approached me. Mr. Crust, the secretary of the Middlesbrough and District motor club, wrote to me and has been in regular touch with my office. He also came to see me in my surgery in Guisborough and expressed deep concern and disappointment about what had happened. He felt that it was a great injustice to the Middlesbrough and District motor club and the fraternity who have enjoyed the event. He felt that what was basically just a harmless day out for classic bikers and the motor cycling fraternity was seen, in law at least, as potentially harmful to the life and limb of everyone in the area.

The root of the legislative jungle lies in the Motor Vehicles (Competitions and Trials) Regulations 1969. That was amended by section 16A of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984, which, in turn, was further amended by section 12(1) of the Road Traffic Act 1988. That means that, in effect, no trials of speed or timing on a public highway would be allowed in England and Wales, even if the highway was especially closed by the highways authority. That was further codified and clarified by an obscure statutory instrument, No. 2233 of 1993, which confirmed the position and laid down a small number of exempted events organised by national bodies such as the RAC Motor Sports Association.

Frankly, a big legislative hammer is being used to crack open a small nut. Although I will grant that the hill climb is a competition of speed and timing, it is not a Formula 1 grand prix. Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello are not fighting Jenson Button and Juan Pablo Montoya for a place on a winning podium in Saltburn. Instead, we are talking about a rather sedate race of very old bikes, lovingly restored and maintained by bike enthusiasts from across the north of England.

In the history of the event there has never been any accident or any injury, and no pedestrian has ever been put in danger. The council and the police managed the event in accordance with best practice in terms of crowd control and road closure. The Middlesbrough and District motor club ran it by the book—the book being a guide from the Auto-Cycle Union covering the arrangements for such events.

As it is, the 2005 race, which would have, in a manner of speaking, been the great centenary event for Saltburn, will now not happen. The organisers examined whether there were ways to avoid the impact of the legislation. There seemed only two ways. Either the race would have had to become some kind of tame formal procession or it would have had to be promoted as a separate event through a private Bill sponsored by the club and the local authority. The first alternative was impossible and unwelcome to the club, which, after all wants to trial its bikes against each other. The second was fantastically expensive, full of legal complexity and beyond the ability of a small motor cycle club to process.

I am asking for positive action from the Minister to help the club, and possibly to help other clubs faced with a similar problem. It is not beyond the wit of Government and our expert legal draftsmen in the Department for Transport to re-examine the regulations, to see whether they can be fine-tuned so that small events of this kind can carry on, while very fast and dangerous road races are still prevented from taking place. I sincerely hope that the Minister will also talk to the Minister for Sport and Tourism, who I feel will have the same views as me on this matter.

The Middlesbrough and District motor club hopes that there might be a ministerial and civil service review of the regulations. Such a review could mean that the event could start again next year. If the Minister were willing to meet them, I would be happy to bring members of that club along so that she could hear what they have to say. We might find a way to deal with the problem and find a direction that would help the club as well as meet the legal obligations. I hope that we can have some sort of joined-up government, which is important, and that the plight of the Middlesbrough and District motor club and those who participate in it can be tackled. If the Minister could give a positive reply, I am sure that she would be welcome in Middlesbrough and in Saltburn, which is a beautiful part of my constituency. She could meet the people in the Middlesbrough and District motor club, and hopefully, they would invite her to take part as a pillion or sidecar passenger in the 2006 hill climb.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 12:45 pm, 19th July 2005

I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr. Kumar on securing this debate and on making his case so cogently and persuasively. He feels strongly and his knowledge and concern have shone through in this debate.

My comments will be divided between the general legislative framework and the specific event raised. As my hon. Friend implied, a number of motor events are permitted on public highways, such as navigational rallies and treasure hunts, but all those competing must abide by road traffic law at all times, including the speed limits, to ensure that public safety is paramount. Although he accurately set out the concern for safety in the event raised, we should remember that the speed limit must be maintained at all times and that past history is not always a guarantee of future performance, to coin a phrase.

Motoring events that could cause danger and are most likely to cause nuisance to the public, such as races or trials of speed, are always illegal on public highways. They are confined to private roads, although local authorities can specially authorise such events on footpaths and bridleways. It is also possible, as my hon. Friend conceded, for specific on-road events to be authorised by a special Act of Parliament.

The legislation specifying when motor events are permitted is in sections 12 and 13 of the Road Traffic Act 1988. Section 12 prohibits any race or trial of speed between motor vehicles from taking place on public highways and replaced similar provisions in section 14 of the Road Traffic Act 1972, which replaced section 7 of the Road Traffic Act 1960, which in turn replaced section 13 of the Road Traffic Act 1930. Section 13 of the 1988 Act allows other forms of competition or trial between motor vehicles to take place on public highways, provided that they are authorised in accordance with the relevant regulations, which are the Motor Vehicles (Competition and Trials) Regulations 1969. Section 13 of the 1988 Act replaced section 15 of the Road Traffic Act 1972, which replaced section 36 of the Road Traffic Act 1962, under which the 1969 regulations were made.

Events are authorised subject to various conditions, which are set out in the 1969 regulations, which ensure the safety of participants, spectators and other highway users. The regulations have been amended four times since they were made. They were last amended in 1993, to update the fees charged for authorising events, to amend the permitted average speed limits to which such events are subject, and to amend the list of specified events that may be authorised more than six months in advance.

Apart from the longer time allowed for authorisation, the events specified in the 1969 and 1993 regulations are subject to the same conditions as all other on-highway motor events. That is because they are large events, which take more time to organise. Such conditions include an average speed limit across the whole of the event on public highways that is not likely to involve any participant either exceeding any speed limit or travelling at a speed that may be dangerous on any part of the road. Also, the average speed for the event must not be more than 30 mph or 60 mph where the route is on a motorway. Those limits are reduced to 25 mph and 50 mph where the vehicles involved are goods vehicles, large passenger vehicles or cars towing caravans. The 1993 amendment increased the average motorway speed from 50 mph to 60 mph for most vehicles and added cars towing caravans to the group of larger vehicles subject to lower limits.

The authorising body for on-road motor events specified in the 1969 regulations is the Royal Automobile Club. The authorisation process is administered on its behalf by the Royal Automobile Club Motor Sports Association, which is now a separate body. The 1969 regulations do not impose any restriction on the type of motor vehicles that can be involved in on-road motor events. There is nothing prohibiting motor cycles from being involved in events that can be authorised in line with the regulations. However, any vehicle used on public highways, whether or not as part of the events, must be roadworthy and comply with current construction, use and vehicle lighting regulations. The maximum number of vehicles permitted to be involved in an event is 180, or 120 for night events.

Section 16A of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984, which was inserted by the Road Traffic Regulation (Special Events) Act 1994, gives local authorities the power to prohibit or restrict vehicles from using certain highways in order to facilitate the holding of motor events. Section 16A does not prohibit or restrict the use of any vehicles involved in a motor event, but it is used to prohibit the use on certain highways of other vehicles not involved in the event in order to allow such an event to take place safely.

Local authorities can only use these powers where certain conditions are met. The event must comply with section 13 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, including any necessary authorisation under the 1969 regulations. An order cannot be made in respect of a race or trial of speed that is prohibited by section 12 of that Act. The authority must also be satisfied that it is not reasonably practicable for the event to be held other than on a highway. However, even if the event is authorised in accordance with section 13 of the 1988 Act and the 1969 regulations, there is no obligation on the local authority to facilitate the event by restricting other traffic under section 16A of the 1984 Act. It may do so, but does not have to. That is the broad legislative framework within which we are required to work.

My hon. Friend has explained his concerns arising from a particular case, the Saltburn hill climb, organised by the Middlesbrough and District motor club. It is a speed trial where each participant is timed throughout the length of the event and there is competition between participants for the lowest time taken to complete it. Speed trials of this kind can take place only off public highways and are subject to the legislation covering off-road motor sport events. As my hon. Friend has mentioned, it is also possible for them to be permitted by a specific Act of Parliament.

This event is prohibited from taking place on public highways by section 12 of the 1988 Act because it takes the form of a trial of speed. The local authority therefore cannot prohibit other traffic from using the highways to facilitate the event under section 16A of the 1984 Act. Subsection (4)(a) of section 16A specifies that local authorities cannot use those powers for events that are prohibited under section 12 of the 1988 Act because they are trials of speed.

The prohibition is specified in section 12 of the 1988 Act, not in the secondary legislation, and it would require primary legislation to change it. It is a long-standing prohibition, dating back to at least 1930, and we do not propose to introduce such legislation. If we allowed racing and speed trials on the public highway, we would be concerned about the effect on the safety of the general public and on traffic congestion on other roads that remained open. I also believe that decisions to hold such races should remain a matter for Parliament to consider in each case.

The purpose of section 12 is to ensure the safety of the general public and is designed to provide a balance between the rights of those taking part in events and the rights of the public at large. Even if an event were held on a closed road, there is no way to completely quarantine it from pedestrians using pavements or footpaths that may cross that section of the highway. That is why races and speed trials, which involve motor vehicles competing to go faster than other participants, are not allowed on public highways.

It may be that such an event could go ahead in future in a modified form, provided it complies with sections 12 and 13 of the 1988 Act and the conditions specified in the 1969 regulations. Alternatively—I understand my hon. Friend's concerns on this—it would be possible for the promoters of the event to seek a private Act of Parliament. My hon. Friend has asked for a meeting, and my door is always open to those making a good case, but I shall not raise expectations of the possibility of a change to the provisions that I have just outlined. He may, if he wishes, explain the results of the debate to the club, and if it were to put forward a number of changes to the event and seek guidance from the Department on whether it was in compliance, it might be possible for us to have further dialogue.

We are currently considering amendments to the 1969 regulations, and the equivalent regulations for off-road motor events. We intend to launch a public consultation on our proposals later this year. That may also inform the club. The main purpose of the amendments is to amend the provisions for the fees charged for authorisations and to specify the Royal Automobile Club Motor Sports Association, rather than the Royal Automobile Club, as the approved authorising body for on-highway events. That process will provide an opportunity to make comments on other aspects of the regulations. I will ensure that my hon. Friend receives a copy of the consultation document when it is published.

Given the circumstances that I have outlined, the club may want to discuss the possibility of a revised event. Although my comments may not have provided the comfort for which my hon. Friend was looking, I hope that they at least explained the Government's thinking on the subject and why we cannot make concessions for events of that exact nature. However, I offer the possibility that in a different guise—in a different form—that event, which, as my hon. Friend outlined so well, is clearly important to the local community and to the tourism economy, may be able to continue.

Photo of John Butterfill John Butterfill Conservative, Bournemouth West

We now come to the next debate. The Minister is in his place, so we may start early.

Photo of Paul Burstow Paul Burstow Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

On a point of order, Sir John. Would it be possible to start at 1 o'clock when one of my hon. Friends, who has a constituency interest in the debate, intends to be here?

Photo of John Butterfill John Butterfill Conservative, Bournemouth West

In that event, I will suspend the sitting until 1 o'clock.

Sitting suspended.