Smart Motorways — [Mr Phillip Hollobone in the Chair]

Environmental Audit Committee – in Westminster Hall at 3:08 pm on 13th January 2022.

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[Mr Phillip Hollobone in the Chair]

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering 3:11 pm, 13th January 2022

Before we begin there are some notices that Mr Speaker requires me to read. May I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate? This is in line with current Government guidance, and that of the House of Commons Commission. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test before coming on to the estate. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the room.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Chair, Transport Committee, Chair, Transport Committee

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the Third Report of the Transport Committee, Rollout and safety of smart motorways, HC26, and the Government response, HC 1020.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. It is the Government response that I am particularly pleased to be discussing; Select Committees scrutinise and then put forward our recommendations, and in this particular instance, it is a great pleasure that the Government have accepted all the key recommendations—and gone further. I am grateful to the Minister, who is taking my thanks on behalf of the Department.

I also want to mention the previous incarnations of the Transport Committee and the work that they have done. I thank our former chair, Dame Louise Ellman, who chaired the Committee in 2016. I was a member of that Committee when a number of recommendations were made. For reasons that I will mention later, I believe that if those recommendations had been carried forward then we might not be where we are now. I also thank my predecessor, Lilian Greenwood, who continued to shine a light on some of the failings of smart motorways. It has been a collective endeavour—a mission over the last six years—but I am pleased that progress is being made. It is also important to ensure that the Committee continues to focus on those assurances, and ensure that they are scrutinised and, ultimately, delivered. We will do so.

It would be remiss of me not to explain more about smart motorways and what their design and technology is there to do. It is there to control the flow and behaviour of traffic. There are three types and often people are baffled by the differences; I hope that I can explain them.

First, there are all lane running motorways, which tend to get the most focus because they do not have a hard shoulder at all. They rely on a series of emergency areas for motorists who become stranded. In 2019, there were 141 miles of all lane running motorway network. The fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles, which is measured from 2015 to 2019 for the purposes of this speech, was 0.12%.

Secondly, there are controlled motorways. These have a permanent hard shoulder at all times, but still have the smart technology. In 2019, they also accounted for 141 miles, with a lower fatality rate of 0.07%.

Thirdly, there is a dynamic hard shoulder motorway concept, which is where the hard shoulder is switched to a lane at busy times during the day. There are just 63 miles of this design, with a fatality rate of 0.09%. In comparison, there are 1,564 miles of conventional motorway, without the smart technology, which have a fatality rate of 0.16%.

The data shows that between 2015 and 2019, all three forms of smart motorways had lower fatality rates than conventional motorways. However, many are concerned because the data from 2019 alone shows that the reverse is true: smart motorways tend to be less safe.

The Transport Committee launched its latest inquiry in February 2021 and reported in November, with the Government responding this week. I will summarise what the Government have agreed to do.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Labour, Warley

Surely, to put it in context, it is best to start with why one would want to do this scheme in the first place. It is about traffic management and, in particular, reducing congestion in very crowded parts of our motorway network, especially at peak hours when people are going to work and with lorry traffic moving through. It is an enormously important part of our economy, particularly around the midlands motorway box where, I think the hon. Member would agree, the M42—the original smart motorway—works extremely well.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Chair, Transport Committee, Chair, Transport Committee

I thank the right hon. Gentleman and take his point on board, although it is a bit difficult to go back to the start and do as he has suggested. However, it is a familiar topic about smart motorways that will come up later. He is absolutely right. If the design guide had followed the prototype—I intend to refer to the M42 and where things then moved—we might have found ourselves in a very different place.

The right hon. Gentleman touched on the reason for this scheme, which, again, is to create the extra capacity that is needed to get people off the more dangerous A and B roads and on to the motorway network. Unfortunately, because of what has happened, there is a danger that the opposite is true, and if he will allow it I will expand on that.

There are seven key points in the recommendations that were accepted. First, there will be a pause of the roll-out of all lane running motorways yet to commence construction until five years of data is available for the smart motorway network built before 2020.

Secondly, the Government will pause the conversion of dynamic hard shoulder motorways to all lane running motorways and revisit the case for controlled motorways. Is it all about all lane running smart motorways or are other smart motorways better?

Thirdly, emergency refuge areas will be retrofitted to existing all lane running motorways to make them no further than 1 mile apart, for which the Government have announced £390 million of funding.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

My hon. Friend will know that I was the roads Minister from the summer of 2016 through 2017, and had been at the Department for Transport prior to that under a different Government. As Minister, I raised the issue of the frequency of those refuges with my office and with Highways England. It seems to me that, for the reassurance of motorists and motoring organisations, it is vital that they come more frequently. The Committee’s report recommends that. I am pleased with the Government’s response, which seems to be positive. However, it is critical that on all lane running motorways—that is the difference he highlighted earlier—those refuges are regularly available so that people can get off the road if and when they need to, without delay.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Chair, Transport Committee, Chair, Transport Committee

I thank my right hon. Friend for the expertise he brings to this debate. He makes some fascinating points. I am interested in whether the advice was followed by Highways England, as it then was. This was a new concept. Our recommendations included giving Ministers and the Department a little more independent advice from the Office of Rail and Road—the roads regulator. Had that been the case, there might have been checks and balances in the system, so the advice that he received might have been better for him. He rightly makes the point that if the build-out had been followed as he approved, we might not be where we are.

The fourth point was the granting of powers to the Office of Rail and Road to evaluate the Government’s smart motorways project plan. Starting this year, the regulator will report on progress annually, and carry out an evaluation of stopped vehicle detection technology and other safety measures.

The fifth point, which comes with a consultation requirement, is to introduce an emergency corridor manoeuvre into the highway code to help emergency services and traffic patrol officers to access incidents.

Sixthly, the Government will investigate the granting of new road safety powers to the roads regulator before changes to design or operational standards are implemented on our motorways and key roads. Again, Ministers would then have that independent four-eyes approach when their advice comes through.

Finally—this is important—we need to revisit the entire business case and rationale for smart motorway conversion. It is interesting that the expectation was that for every £1 spent on smart motorways, £3 would be delivered back, because we would be creating more capacity. There have not actually been that many studies of whether that has been achieved, because a longer assessment period is needed, which is now consistent with the safety assessment. However, one project on the M25 was delivering almost £3 back, although it is fair to say that the experts’ view is that it dissipates after a year, as more people use the motorway network.

The headline is a pause on new smart motorways, but the aspect that I am really determined to ensure that the Committee follows is all the retrofitting work that is needed to make the existing smart motorway network safer. That means vital work has to start on reducing the width between emergency refuge sites. We have seen that if a car is travelling at 60 mph and the distance interval is 2.5 km, it takes 75 seconds for that car to get to the emergency refuge areas. Some 40% of all breakdowns occur in a live lane, and that has to be impacted by the fact that the emergency refuge area is too far for the cars to get to, so it is essential that this is delivered.

I will touch on the stopped vehicle detection technology, which the Government are committed to ensuring is rolled out on the existing network by 2022. The Government are right to say that it was originally planned for 2023, so it will happen a year earlier. The Committee’s frustration is that we were given assurances by Highways England, the predecessor to National Highways, in 2016 that “going forward” the stopped vehicle detection technology would be put in place in the delivery of all new smart motorways. That has not occurred. When we heard from National Highways, as it now is, in our current inquiry, we were told that “going forward” actually meant “after two years”, whereas, to me, going forward means “immediately”.

Of course, the challenge now—it will be a funding challenge as well as an operational challenge—is that once those motorways are open and running, it is a lot harder and more expensive to retrofit the technology in place, which we have been told will be one of the blockers. In my view, that is precisely the reason they should have been put in to start with. I know the Government are now committed to ensuring that whenever they finish the existing smart motorways—which, rightly, cannot be stopped because they are almost there—they cannot open until the technology is in place.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Labour, Warley

Maybe a future programme for the hon. Gentleman’s Committee is why such bad advice is being given to Ministers inside the Department. Given that the M42 already had a system that worked and delivered much more predictable journey times, reduced fuel use, reduced pollution and, incidentally, reduced accident rates—that is all in the data from the M42 experiment—why did they cut corners after that? In the same way, they saved about £10 million on the paper licence, but it is costing about £100 million a year. Is there not clearly a systemic failure in advice and capability inside the Department for Transport?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Chair, Transport Committee, Chair, Transport Committee

I would be interested in hearing from former Ministers and the current Minister, but from my study of the matter over the last six years, I think the answer is that the culture has been about creating the capacity. That makes perfect sense, because if we create the capacity on the motorway network, we take traffic off the more dangerous roads. However, the difficulty is that we have then not focused on ensuring that the new roads are as safe as they can be. If we had the refuge areas at shorter distances and had the stopped vehicle detection technology, that could be done.

It was quite interesting that when we spoke to then chief executive of Highways England and asked why some of the motorways were open, notwithstanding the measures that had been put in place, he maintained that drivers wanted to try the road once the tarmac had been delivered. He stated: “We get a lot of negative feedback from the public, who say, ‘We know this is a smart motorway and you’re opening it. Why can’t we use that lane now?’”. I think it is that that has driven the feeling of, “Let’s get on and move it,” and then the safety measures and the design side seem to get cut.

I think there was a mentality in the agency that it designed this, so it became very defensive about it and tried to stretch it as much as it could. I would say that the safety bit got somewhat left behind and was not given the prominence that it should have been given. We know that the agency has a zero-harm policy: it aims to reduce harm, in terms of deaths, to zero by 2040. That is a lofty target, but it is also one that should be focused on every bit as much as creating the capacity.

I will end with this summary, because it is important that everybody else has the opportunity to speak and that we hear from former Ministers, with their ministerial expertise—there are two here to provide that. It is welcome that the Government have agreed to these recommendations. I applaud them for doing that, but it is essential that we now crack on with the safety measures that should have been there in the first place. They have not been there, but we now need to focus on getting them delivered as soon as we can.

It is vital that we use the Office of Rail and Road more, as it is the regulator and is able to challenge some of the assumptions. I welcome the acceptance of that recommendation, but the Office of Rail and Road is going to have to change as well. Of 350 employees inside that organisation, only 19 are dedicated to roads. It used to be the Office of Rail Regulation, but has been extended to cover roads; in reality, it is about rail. We do not want to get to a situation in which the culture is such—as perhaps it is with rail—that safety becomes the only issue, and we cannot ever get on and deliver innovations, because that might not be 100% safe; nothing is. We need to ensure that we still have a road-building programme in place.

Ultimately, it is really important that the Government look to whether they will continue with smart motorway build-out by assessing the data over this paused period. I very much hope that if the safety measures are brought in, that will strengthen the case for smart motorways, because the final point that I want to send to the public is that smart motorways are safe. The motorway network in this country is one of the safest in the world. People should be encouraged to use the motorway network. But we can make those smart motorways even safer, and I very much hope that this report and the Government’s response to it will help to that end.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

Order. The debate will last until 4.30 pm. I am obliged to start calling the Front Benchers no later than seven minutes past 4. The guideline limits are 10 minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition, 10 minutes for the Minister, and then the Chairman of the Transport Committee will get three minutes to sum up the debate at the end. There are five Back Benchers, with a humongous amount of highways expertise, seeking to contribute, and it is Back-Bench time until seven minutes past 4. The first of those will be Grahame Morris.

Photo of Grahame Morris Grahame Morris Labour, Easington 3:28 pm, 13th January 2022

I appreciate your calling me in this debate, Mr Hollobone. It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I begin by commending the work of the Chair of the Select Committee, Huw Merriman, and the way in which he has not only gone about the gathering of evidence for the inquiry, but actively promoted the response from the Government and the conclusions of the Committee. He is to be commended for that. I would also like to record, on my behalf, and, I am sure, that of all members of the Transport Committee, our thanks to the members of staff, the subject specialists and all the support staff who have been involved in preparing this third report of the current Session.

As I believe the Chair of the Committee has already pointed out, this is not the first Transport Committee report scrutinising all lane running motorways. Although I welcome the Government’s acceptance of the Transport Committee’s recommendations, safety risks on all lane running motorways, such as those raised by our predecessor Committee in 2016, should have been addressed before those motorways were rolled out.

My own party and I personally have long felt that the Government needed to halt the roll-out of smart motorways. The Committee identified considerable evidence that there are serious flaws. It is a tragedy that so many lives were lost before action was taken.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Labour, Warley

There is a slight danger of conflating smart motorways and all lane running motorways. There are smart motorways that work, as with the M42, which is a key part of the motorway box around Birmingham and vital to the economy of this country. We therefore need to differentiate, and to look at what has worked and at why that was not followed through on. It is enormously important not just for those travelling to work, but—given that this country and its economy runs on its trucking industry and its drivers, as we found out recently—to keep things flowing. We have to look at extending that, rather than wrapping all those together in one framework.

Photo of Grahame Morris Grahame Morris Labour, Easington

That is a reasonable point. I certainly do not disagree with my right hon. Friend. I point out that our third inquiry was launched in response to concerns that the Committee had received about the increasing number of fatalities and to criticism by professionals, including coroners, about the risks that arise when we do not have hard shoulders, or when they are used as an additional lane.

As we heard in the Chair of the Committee’s opening remarks, the number of miles of motorway without a hard shoulder increased from 172 to 204 between 2017 and 2019. Over those two years, the number of deaths on motorways without a permanent hard shoulder increased from five to 15. At least 38 people have been killed on smart motorways in the past five years. On one section of the M25 outside London, the number of near misses has risen twentyfold since the hard shoulder was removed in April 2014.

Thanks to the dedication of bereaved families, the roll-out has been paused. As part of the Committee’s inquiry, we heard some of the most harrowing and moving evidence from the families of those who, tragically, have died on smart motorways. That testimony, I believe, was very valuable and I thank all those who gave evidence in person and in writing.

All lane running motorways were primarily a money-saving exercise. We skirted around that issue earlier. In the rationale, they were introduced to add capacity while delivering savings on capital, maintenance and operational costs compared with previous smart motorway designs. The aim was to achieve the savings required by the 2010 spending review while maintaining Highways Agency safety standards. Clearly, those motorways could reduce the costs of implementation by up to a quarter.

It is now evident, however, that cost-cutting has played a part in the utterly inadequate roll-out of smart motorway features. That has put lives at risk. Many of the problems with the safety of all lane running motorways remain, years after the original Transport Committee report.

Photo of Chris Loder Chris Loder Conservative, West Dorset

National Highways has been given £27.4 billion this year. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that it might be a case not of a shortage of cash at National Highways, but more a lack of focus on the need for safety?

Photo of Grahame Morris Grahame Morris Labour, Easington

Some important questions need to be asked, and agencies and individuals need to be held to account for the decisions made.

It is staggering that since the first smart motorways went live, those basic standard safety features referred to earlier and in the statement this morning have still not been fully implemented—that smart technology to detect broken-down vehicles in live lanes. Emergency refuge areas are too far apart. CCTV cameras on smart motorways are not routinely monitored, which is an incredible admission that the Committee uncovered. Compliance with and enforcement of red X signs remain problematic.

Cameras capable of enforcing compliance will not be fully rolled out until September this year. As the Chairman of the Committee alluded to, the Committee was originally promised that the deadline for that would be six years earlier and that those cameras and that technology would be implemented in 2019. Also, we have now been told that stopped-vehicle detection will not be rolled out across all lane running motorways until September this year, six years after the Transport Committee was told that the technology worked and would be part of the standard roll-out of these schemes.

Emergency services and traffic patrol officers still struggle to access incidents in a timely manner, especially during periods of heavy congestion. Of course, the introduction of all-electric vehicles brings a whole new dimension into potential chokepoints and road traffic accidents, if such vehicles were to run out of power on an all lane running motorway.

The Committee’s report makes it clear that engagement and clear communication with the public about smart motorways will be key to their safe and successful roll-out, so education is a key issue. However, almost half of the British public do not know what to do in the event of an emergency on a smart motorway. We do not have any smart motorways or all lane running motorways in the north-east, but my constituents travel down to London and use these roads, which do not have a hard shoulder, so education is absolutely vital. However, it was a profound mistake that the first public information awareness campaign about smart motorways was not launched until 2021, years after they came into operation.

We know that smart motorways, given their current form and inadequate safety standards, are not fit for purpose and put lives at risk. I believe that Ministers were wrong to press ahead with them when there was strong evidence that safety-critical features should be introduced as the sections of smart motorways were being developed.

I am pleased that the Government have acknowledged the Committee’s concerns and paused the roll-out of all lane running smart motorways until five years of safety and economic data is available, and improvements have been delivered and independently evaluated.

I will conclude with several questions for the Minister. First, is it not illogical that hundreds of miles of smart motorway will continue to be used? What about the remedial work? How is that being programmed? Does she agree that the delay of the roll-out programme, caused by the delays in installing the relevant technology to detect broken-down vehicles, has risked lives, and that the continuing use of hundreds of miles of smart motorways before remedial work has been carried out is a risk to public safety? And will she and the Department for Transport engage with the Transport Committee to agree what data will form part of the evidence-gathering assessment over the next five years to determine the relative safety of smart motorways?

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

Order. To ensure that everyone gets in and can contribute, I am imposing a seven-minute limit on speeches.

Photo of Chris Loder Chris Loder Conservative, West Dorset 3:38 pm, 13th January 2022

It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate, Mr Hollobone, and to serve on the Transport Committee under its Chairman, my hon. Friend Huw Merriman.

This report is the most substantial and impactful that the Transport Committee has produced for many years. It has looked to address some particularly difficult issues. All of us—both Members of Parliament and the Government—should ask ourselves why has it taken six years and three inquiries to get to this point? None the less, I am pleased that we have reached a point where a Transport Committee report has been accepted pretty much in its entirety by the Government.

My contribution will focus specifically on safety. Today, National Highways is focused on delivery, providing capacity and basically getting tarmac on the ground but, as I asked a senior director of National Highways at a recent meeting, how many people have to die on our national road network for National Highways to take safety seriously? How can it be that a fundamental part of the system—stopped-vehicle detection technology—was not working, despite the assurances that had been given to the Committee and others that it would be delivered? That is an absolute disgrace.

I hope the Minister will address that issue in her response. I look forward to hearing what she, her Department and the Secretary of State will do to address the issue. It is fair to say that very few people believe—I certainly do not—that National Highways take safety seriously enough or ensure it features in its decision making.

That leads me to the role of the Office of Rail and Road. As most Members here will know, before I came to this place my career was with the railways. I worked in the transport industry for 20 years, and I had many dealings with the ORR, in different ways. As my hon. Friend the Chair of the Committee said earlier, only 19 of the 350 employees of the ORR are focused on highways, because highway safety is not really part of the ORR’s portfolio.

In the same way that the ORR has safety responsibility for the railways, we should deal with the safety issue of our highways by having a proper safety regulator, in order to hold National Highways, and other organisations, to account. As we have seen in this report, and heard in other contributions, we have an organisation that has been able to wriggle out of delivering key safety measures. That is a national disgrace, and a matter of huge, enormous, personal pain for the families of those who have lost their lives on the smart motorway network.

In conclusion, I thank my hon. Friend the Chair of the Committee and the Transport Committee team for what they have done. This is undoubtedly the most impactful report we have seen for a long time. I am especially pleased that the Government have supported pretty much everything we said, but we now need to see the Government taking these actions forward. Going forward in my role on the Committee, I will focus on ensuring that the safety issues I have outlined, specifically around National Highways’ responsibility to deliver safety matters and the ORR’s responsibility to address safety, are dealt with in the future.

Photo of Mark Fletcher Mark Fletcher Conservative, Bolsover 3:43 pm, 13th January 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I have enjoyed the contributions from all members of the Transport Committee. I welcome its report and the Government’s response.

I take a slightly different perspective on this debate, because the spine of my constituency is junctions 28 to 30 of the M1, in which we have 30 miles of all lane running smart motorway. To the south is junctions 25 to 28, which is a controlled motorway, and to the north is junctions 30 to 35a, which is 19 miles of smart motorway. The section just to the north of my constituency, around Woodall services up to Sheffield, is the section in which unfortunately many people have lost their lives, including people from neighbouring Rotherham and Mansfield. Grahame Morris referred to people giving evidence and those bereaved families, and our hearts go out to them.

It is a very difficult stretch of motorway from Nottingham up to Leeds, and it is undoubtedly over capacity: the amount of traffic that goes up that stretch is beyond what that road was initially designed to cope with. The smart motorway was seen as a solution to that issue, but I am not sure that it has been wildly successful. Anyone who lives in my constituency will know that we make regular appearances on the Radio 2 traffic bulletins, because the section between junctions 28 and 30 seems to have an accident on a fairly regular basis.

It is with that in mind that I read the report, and there are significant concerns about whether the introduction of the smart motorway has had the desired effects. I am not sure that it has. I am not sure that it has improved safety—as my hon. Friend Chris Loder just outlined, there are significant concerns about that—but there is also an issue with the road network in my part of the world and the fact that the A1, which covers a very similar stretch, does not do its fair share of lifting, because it is not really fit for purpose and needs significant investment. I am sure that if my hon. Friend Alicia Kearns were here, she would argue the same case.

However, I want to go back to the context that the M1 is absolutely central to the local economy in Bolsover. We have a huge number of logistics firms, so when the smart motorway—or the motorway in general—is not working, that has a big impact on the local economy. A number of my constituents are constantly caught in traffic jams because when the M1 is not running, to my west it can back up almost all the villages in my constituency, and to my east there is a significant pressure because people try to get over to the A1 on the A619, which runs through parts of my constituency and that of my hon. Friend Brendan Clarke-Smith. That has a big impact on a lot of my villages, Whitwell in particular, because of the number of diverted heavy goods vehicles.

Added to that context—the Minister will smile wryly at this point—is the fact that some of my motorway junctions on that particular stretch are not fit for purpose. In particular, junctions 28 and 29 are suffering, which is having a huge, detrimental economic impact on us. I am working with Highways England—or whatever it is referred to now—to improve that particular situation, but a smart motorway on junctions 28 to 30 has brought a huge amount of congestion, an increase in near misses and a problem with air pollution, particularly in the south of my constituency around South Normanton and Pinxton. I appreciate that the rationale behind the decision to bring in a smart motorway was to increase capacity on a particularly difficult stretch, but I sympathised with the hon. Member for Easington when he said that it was perhaps just a cheap alternative to properly upgrading the motorway and strategic road network in that patch.

Given that we are in the heart of the country, it is worth pointing out to the Minister that further work needs to be done, and that is before we come on to safety. I drive down from my constituency to Westminster on a regular basis. There is a new bit of smart motorway being installed between, I think, junctions 13 and 16— hopefully someone will correct me if I am wrong—but there are other stretches in which the red Xs are totally ignored on a regular basis. I regularly see emergency vehicles unable to get to where they need to get to, and that is a worry, because we are creating an additional problem that I see on a weekly basis.

My hon. Friend the Chair of the Transport Committee spoke about the evidence regarding the benefit-cost ratio of smart motorways, and the fact that Professor Metz—I think it was him, but forgive me if I have got that wrong—was concerned about whether the return on those projects has been what we want them to be, or whether it is a one-off hit. I think he said that in the first year, they show a return on investment, but then the problems continue.

My experience locally indicates that although we have a smart motorway, it is not doing what it needs to do. As such, although I welcome the report and completely echo the concerns about safety, I have to conclude that I am not sure smart motorways are the answer. I appreciate all the comments made by the Chair of the Select Committee about smart motorways being a good thing, but I am not sure that I entirely agree with him. I wish the report had gone perhaps slightly further by looking at what else could be done to improve the road network, but that may be a separate point. It is an important report and I very much welcome the Government’s proactive stance on taking forward the recommendations. I hope the Minister has heard the plight that many of my constituents face, and that she will be proactive in looking for solutions with all the stakeholders involved. Again, I thank the Select Committee and thank everyone for listening.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings 3:50 pm, 13th January 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and to contribute to this important debate on smart motorways. The American poet Robert Frost spoke of two roads. We heard from the Select Committee Chairman that, in the case of smart motorways, there are at least three types of road. In a sense, that is the first point I want to make because that has led to confusion. As the Select Committee rightly concluded, there is a lack of understanding among many drivers of what smart motorways are, and particularly what all lane running is and what to do if, as the Committee put it, they break down in a live lane. As the Select Committee Chairman pointed out, 40% of breakdowns happen in such a lane.

People break down for two reasons. It is either a vehicular failure or some incident in the car, perhaps illness or accident. They need to get off the motorway quickly. The Select Committee also pointed out, however, that, contrary to what one might expect, hard shoulders are not actually the solution. They can cause more difficulties than they solve and can be dangerous places. Refuges are the answer, and I will return to that in a moment.

The key point I want to make at the outset is that the management and accountability of these matters needs to be urgently reviewed. When I was a Minister in the Department for Transport—I do not know if I am unique in the House, but I am certainly very unusual in having been appointed to that Department as a Minister three times—I was involved in setting up what was then Highways England. We looked at it very closely because we understood that the governance of that organisation needed to be such that Ministers could take power to direct it. Indeed, when I was speaking to my officials at the time, I said, “I want it to look as little like Network Rail as possible”, precisely because Ministers seem to have little authority over Network Rail.

There is the power of direction in respect of Highways England—what has now become National Highways—and it is necessary sometimes for Ministers to use that power, whatever their officials tell them. I do think, informed by the report and the excellent Government response to it, that from now on in Ministers need to take a very proactive approach when dealing with smart motorways.

The second point I want to make is about regulation. It has been made already, but it needs to be made again because it warrants amplification. The Office of Rail and Road is long established and, as a result, has a distinguished pedigree in regulating the railway system, but it has taken on roads only relatively recently, and it seems to me that the regulatory function needs to be enhanced, as the Select Committee has argued—that is a further way in which the decisions in respect of roads generally and smart motorways in particular can be made accountable. Both accountability to the regulator and being answerable to Ministers are vital as we move forward, and will provide the public with greater assurance about the safety of these new types of road. After all, they are a “radical change”, as the Select Committee says, to our road network, and confusing to drivers because of the various types of road that they may now encounter, particularly if they are not used to travelling a particular route. For instance, they may be going to a part of the country that they do not know and are therefore not familiar with the sort of road on which they are driving.

Finally, refuges are important not only because they provide an opportunity to get off the road in that 75-second period that my hon. Friend Huw Merriman mentioned, but because of what they broadcast about safety to drivers. They provide important reassurance to drivers that the road is indeed safe and that, in the case of emergency, there is a means of escaping the circumstances in which they might find themselves. That is why I made that point emphatically as Minister. I am delighted that the Select Committee has made it too, and that the Government have acknowledged and recognised it, although I notice the caveat in the small print that it is sometimes not possible to provide refuges at quite the regular intervals that the Select Committee recommends. None the less, I think the Government heard the message that I have emphasised once again.

It is important to see this in context. The most dangerous roads are not motorways, and they are not smart motorways. There is a good argument for thinking creatively and imaginatively about how we can make our roads more effective, as the Select Committee Chairman has said, and so build additional capacity to deal with congestion and so on. However, in order to do so, we must take the public with us. This pause is a huge opportunity for a programme of education, so that people know what kind of road they will encounter, what to expect and to feel safe accordingly.

The Select Committee has, as it should, done the House and the Government a great service. The Committee exists not only to scrutinise Government but to think about things that the Government would not otherwise consider. This is a good example of that. The Minister is an extremely diligent member of the Government. I hope she will indeed take seriously these recommendations, which are clearly made on the basis of both good faith and good information, and that we can move ahead to roads that are effective and make travel easier and, fundamentally, much safer.

Photo of Andrew Jones Andrew Jones Chair, European Statutory Instruments Committee, Chair, European Statutory Instruments Committee 3:57 pm, 13th January 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and to speak on this important issue of road safety. Overall, this is an area where the UK has a very good and strong track record, with both deaths and injuries falling over many years. Some problem areas remain that have proven quite difficult to make improvements on. I think especially of rural roads and the challenges among younger drivers. However, we should note that that downward trend continues and we should welcome it. When I looked at the most recent data before coming to the debate, I was very encouraged, but I note that it is from the period of lockdown, so some caution is required about data points during this period.

We must never forget one important thing: behind every stat is a life lost, a family shattered. These are true tragedies, which is why we should never be complacent about any issues with road safety. There is always more to do, and we should be spurred on to tackle more and more things. I welcome this report by the Transport Committee. It has done a good piece of work. I have to say that it is a Select Committee that I have had quite a bit to do with over the years, but mainly by appearing in front of it, rather than being a member of it. As the Chair, my hon. Friend Huw Merriman, said, the report, “Rollout and safety of smart motorways”, is the result of much detailed and prolonged work. The fact that its recommendations have been so quickly adopted by the Government shows how well that work has gone.

It is good to see all nine recommendations adopted by the Government, but I will speak about just one of them. Colleagues have spoken with great insight into other areas, but I will focus on the recommendation on stopped vehicle detection—SVD—technology. Technology is critical to the future of our transport systems. I do not just mean things like electric vehicles or hydrogen trains, although I know they are transformative and very exciting. I also mean using technology as a facilitator to reach a solution to one of the biggest challenges in transport, and that challenge is how to make it easier, cheaper and more sustainable to move increasing numbers of people and goods around our country.

I do not think this is a modal question. The challenges lie in all modes. We have not built a new railway line north of London since the reign of Queen Victoria, or a new runway in the south-east of England since the passenger jet was invented, or had a road investment programme since the 1970s, so we are looking at a period of sustained under-investment. There are reasons for that, one being that successive Governments have sought to use the existing infrastructure more intensely. In some cases, that has been more successful than others. Key successes include rail line usage, where we have seen increasing developments in rail signalling, and air corridor use. The key point is that the factor that made that possible is technological advance. More intensive use of existing infrastructure has been at the heart of the smart motorway development. As has been said, all various iterations go back decades.

Ultimately, to protect our environment, people do not really want to see huge amounts of new infrastructure. It is an environmental issue as much as a cost issue, unless we have absolutely no choice. Safety must be at the heart of all the technology and developments that will come into play. Technology is developing so fast that it has to be a factor in delivering safety on our road network, too. There have clearly been concerns about the safety of our roads, and smart motorways in particular. The speed and the size of vehicles can make us feel unsafe on motorways, and we know that the data shows, as my right hon. Friend Sir John Hayes has said, that the hard shoulder is where people can feel most vulnerable and where problems can indeed arise. I experienced that myself recently, in the middle of the night. On a cold, dark night, a hard shoulder can be quite a grim experience.

When we bring in new technology, we have to take people with us and address their concerns. The pause that has been announced gives us the chance to retrofit, implement and review the SVD technology and perhaps improve it. The pace of the development is so fast that I am sure that developments will come into play sooner rather than later. We should expect all modes of transport to become busier as we emerge from the pandemic, and that will include our roads. As that happens, road safety must never be compromised, but enhanced. My point is that technology and the advances in it are central now and will become even more so in future.

I want to finish with one request to both the Transport Committee and the Minister. I ask them to please put particular emphasis on recommendation 4 and the technology, its deployment and development, because I am absolutely sure it will save lives, and that should be the priority in road safety planning.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

We now come to the Front-Bench speeches. First, Tan Dhesi on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Transport) 4:03 pm, 13th January 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Hollobone. I want to convey my gratitude to the Chair of the Transport Committee, Huw Merriman, and the other hard-working members of his Committee and their predecessors for all of their excellent work in this area. We have witnessed excellent speeches from right hon. and hon. Members who have extensive experience in transport.

The Labour party welcomes the Transport Secretary’s announcement that he is pausing the roll-out of work not yet begun. The botched roll-out of smart motorways has cost lives. That is an undeniable fact. The Labour party has long warned about serious flaws in the whole process, and it is a tragedy that lives were lost before action was taken. It is thanks to the dedication of bereaved families and individuals such as members of the Transport Committee, a much-respected cross-party grouping, that the roll-out has been paused at all. We know that smart motorways in their current form, coupled with inadequate safety systems, are not fit for purpose and are putting lives at risk. Ministers were wrong to press ahead, as strong evidence warned against it.

We all want increased capacity and reduced congestion. We all want an increase in economic activity, but it must be done safely. In 2016, as the Chair of the Transport Committee has said, his predecessor Committee expressed deep scepticism about the design and implementation of all lane running motorways. The promised safety improvements were simply not delivered. Frankly, it is simply staggering that years after the first smart motorways went live, standard safety measures to detect broken down vehicles in live lanes have still not been fully rolled out. As the report has found, the CCTV is not routinely monitored. It is unacceptable that the distance between emergency refuge areas on motorways in operation today is far above what should be considered safe.

Coroners ruled that the lack of a hard shoulder contributed to four recent deaths. At least 38 people have been killed on smart motorways in the last five years. On one section of the M25 outside London, the number of near misses has risen twentyfold since the hard shoulder was removed in April 2014. Let us be clear: lives could have been saved if the safety-critical features identified by parliamentarians in report after report had been implemented.

Of course, we welcome the Minister’s announcement, but the devil is in the detail, as right hon. and hon. Members have highlighted. It is that on which I would like to press the Minister, and on two key points in particular. The first is the implications for the existing 200 miles of live lanes currently in use, and the second is the precise plan for the retrofitting of those lanes. I have to say that we are deeply concerned that yesterday’s announcement was an implicit acceptance that there are serious safety concerns on all lane running motorways, but they will continue to be in operation while the issues are addressed and the data evaluated.

At the very least, the announcement yesterday was an admission that the data do not currently support the continued roll-out of smart motorways. Otherwise, why has it paused for five years while we await further data? The clear implication is that motorists driving on the 200 miles of live lanes will be guinea pigs in order to justify the 67 miles left to be deployed. That is utterly illogical. It is quite simple: if Ministers cannot justify the safety of smart motorways on roads still to be built, they cannot justify the safety of those currently in use. The priority must be passenger safety.

Photo of Grahame Morris Grahame Morris Labour, Easington

My hon. Friend is making some solid points, and I just want to seek some clarification. It is also in relation to a point made by Andrew Jones in respect of recommendation 4 and the stopped vehicle detection technology. My concern is that the Roads Minister previously told the Transport Committee that although stopped vehicle detection technology improves safety, it is not necessary to make all lane running motorways safe, because

“all-lane running motorways were designed to—and do—operate safely without it.”

Does my hon. Friend share my concern that we may not be using this five-year period to retrofit the safety-critical systems, if that is still the view of Ministers?

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Transport)

My hon. Friend is correct. I made this very point in the main Chamber earlier today, and I will come to the point about technology.

We reiterate our call for Ministers to reinstate the hard shoulder while the safety-critical work is carried out, the botched public information campaign is properly rolled out, and a further review of the evidence takes place.

Let me turn to the Government’s pledges on remedial work. Back in June 2016, the Transport Committee said that the roll-out of smart motorways should not continue unless there are emergency refuge points every 500 metres. Typically, they are now 1.2 miles apart. The difference for drivers may not sound like a lot, but in reality it is enormous. Forty-five seconds could be the difference between breaking down in a live lane or not. On average, 38% of breakdowns in all lane motorways are in live lanes. It can take approximately 20 minutes for authorities to be alerted to the breakdown, the lane to be closed and support to arrive. That is simply unacceptable and it will be the reality on hundreds of miles of motorway while this remedial work is under way and while safety-critical features are still not in force. How can the Minister justify that?

On the remedial work itself, the Government committed to an additional £390 million to install additional areas—but they were silent on the detail. We know the stocktake had an ambition for refuge areas 1 mile apart, so further clarification on this point is essential. Will the Minister provide a clear answer to the following questions? First, will 150 additional lanes be installed exclusively on live lanes currently in use, or does this include the 100 miles under construction? Secondly, when the remedial work is completed, what will the average distance between refuge areas be on ALRs? Thirdly, what will the distance be, once work is completed on the M25 in particular, where emergency refuges are furthest apart? Will the Minister deposit in the Commons Library an analysis of average distance between refuge areas on each motorway, making use of smart motorway technology and the estimated distance after this remedial work has taken place?

Ministers were warned that a gap of that distance was dangerous. They were wrong to press ahead in any event. They now must be open and transparent about the full implications of their announcement. On the roll-out of stopped vehicle detection technology, which my hon. Friend Grahame Morris mentioned, it is frankly scandalous that this technology has not been put in place in parallel with the upgrade of motorways. The Committee noted starkly that had this been in place—as was promised way back in 2016—lives would have been saved. Will the Minister outline whether it is still the plan for the roll-out to be completed this year? Will she also explain why, if there are question marks over the effectiveness of this technology, CCTV is still not being routinely monitored? That is a recurring problem, as has been pointed out by various media reports.

Finally, on communication, it is distressing to discover that nearly half of motorists do not know what to do if they break down on a smart motorway. It is extraordinary that the first information campaign was not launched until 2021. What plans do the Department have to launch an effective mass information campaign to dramatically boost those numbers. Taken in total, it is clear that in the absence of a safe distance between refuge areas, a proper independent evaluation of data, the Department’s action plan, the roll-out of safety measures and low public awareness, existing all lane motorways simply cannot be considered safe. Ministers should have listened; they did not, and now the public are paying the price. Lessons must be learned.

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 4:13 pm, 13th January 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I must begin by thanking the Chair of the Transport Committee, my hon. Friend Huw Merriman, and all the other members, for their hard work. I was once a member of a Select Committee, so I know the number of hours in preparation and effort that are put in by both the members and the team of staff that support the Committee to ensure that the information and witnesses that inform an inquiry are using evidence-based information and are fair and balanced. On behalf of the Secretary of State and all of us in the Department for Transport, I put on record our gratitude to the Transport Committee for its report and the way it has collaborated and worked with the Government. That is why we are in the position to take forward not one, two, three, four, five or six, but all nine recommendations in the report.

I know that the Committee took evidence from many experts with differing views. I believe, as do the Secretary of State and the Roads Minister, Baroness Vere of Norbiton, that the resulting report is a thorough examination of issues. It is a rounded report, with sensible and pragmatic recommendations, which the Government will take forward. Members will have seen the Government’s response, published yesterday, 12 January. I hope they will agree that it demonstrates our commitment to help ensure that these motorways continue to be as safe as they possibly can be.

Our motorways are among the safest in the world. Compared with the rest of Europe and the United States, we stack up particularly well. Are they as safe as they can be? There will always be room for improvement.

I pay tribute to everybody who has been involved in the campaign that has informed the recommendations. The actions we are taking are certainly, in part, a result of their effective campaigning.

I will make a number of general points, then will address some of the questions raised by right hon. and hon. Members today. First, we must remember why smart motorways were developed. A smart motorway can carry 1,600 additional vehicles an hour in each direction. They decrease journey times and provide more reliability on our busiest stretches of motorway. They have a lower impact on the environment, with five times lower carbon emissions from construction, a decrease in loss of biodiversity and a lower land take through construction. They are also provided at a lower cost—estimated at 50 to 60% less costly than widening—and are delivered more quickly.

Secondly, we should also acknowledge that the evidence to date supports the safety case for smart motorways. In terms of fatality rates, all-lane-running motorways are the safest in the country based on the available data. Smart motorways without a permanent hard shoulder account for 1% of fatalities, motorways with a hard shoulder account for 5%, and all other fatalities—94%—occur on other roads.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

While we are on the subject of other roads, it would be remiss of me not to make a case for Lincolnshire. We do not find motorways in Lincolnshire, smart or otherwise, but we do find a number of key arterial routes that carry an immense amount of traffic and need improvement. While I am here and the Minister is here, too, I ask her to look again at support and funding for those roads that feed our arterial routes—those connecting roads. When I was responsible for the road investment strategy, I made it clear that those connecting routes are critical, both in terms of capacity and in terms of safety. Let us have more money for Lincolnshire roads.

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

My right hon. Friend makes an excellent case for road improvements in his South Holland and the Deepings constituency. I have some sympathy with that challenge. I, too, have no motorway in my Copeland constituency. It is about an hour and 20 minutes for me to get to junction 36 on the M6, so I know how important good connectivity is. I am sure the Roads Minister, Baroness Vere, and our officials, will have heard his calls.

Thirdly, we should recognise that the focus and attention of many stakeholders and the media has resulted in a significant investment in the existing smart motorway network, and we are now going even further to invest £390 million in additional emergency areas, which we have heard an awful lot about today. That will bring us an extra 150 emergency places to stop—safe refuges, as they have been referred to today—which I know are important in creating safe perceptions for drivers.

The Government accept that there is more work to be done to move to a position where all drivers feel confident on smart motorways. That is where we need to get to.

Photo of Grahame Morris Grahame Morris Labour, Easington

The Minister has quoted some statistics, but I would refer to the statistics that were quoted earlier in the debate regarding the number of accidents on smart motorways that have been caused by vehicles that have broken down. I cannot remember the precise figure, but I think it was 48. Could the Minister clarify her view on the retrofitting of stopped-vehicle technology? Is she committed to ensuring that this five-year period is going to be one in which the retrofitting of specialist technology cameras to detect broken-down vehicles will be accelerated?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I absolutely can confirm that, and I will move on to that when I address Members’ comments. The Government are bringing forward work to ensure that it is complete by September, which is six months ahead of the previous target.

We are taking forward all the recommendations made by the Transport Committee, including the recommendation to pause the roll-out of future all-lane-running schemes in order to gather further safety and economic data. We want to make sure that we have five years of that data across a wider network of open all-lane-running motorways. We want to complete and evaluate the roll-out of measures within the stocktake, which the Secretary of State commissioned, and the action plan with its 18 actions. It will enable evidence to be gathered to inform a robust assessment of options for future enhancements of capacity on the strategic road network as we prepare for the next road investment strategy. We will also take forward the recommendations to pause the conversion of dynamic hard-shoulder smart motorways to all-lane-running motorways until the next road investment strategy.

We will retrofit more emergency areas across existing all-lane-running schemes. We will conduct an independent evaluation of the effectiveness of stopped-vehicle detection technology. We will explore the introduction of the emergency corridor manoeuvre into the highway code, and we will investigate the benefits of health and safety assessments being undertaken by the Office of Rail and Road.

Photo of Chris Loder Chris Loder Conservative, West Dorset

I thank the Minister for the points she is making. Can I press her on the point about health and safety assessments by the Office of Rail and Road? It is very clear from a lot of the work that we as a Committee have seen that there is a fundamental and systemic problem with the prioritising of safety within National Highways. Does she agree that the need to have an assessment might not be quite as substantial as it should be? Will her Department look to consider a substantial regulatory role for road safety within the ORR going forward?

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

The Minister will want to respond to the intervention, but I remind her that she has four minutes left before Huw Merriman sums up the debate.

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

Thank you, Chair. I am aware of that. To respond briefly to my hon. Friend’s point, who has experience with the Office of Rail and Road, we will shortly be establishing an expert panel to help us review existing regulatory responsibilities. It will report back to Ministers later this year. I hope that is helpful.

Moving on to other Members’ points, my good friend, my right hon. Friend Sir John Hayes mentioned how important it is to have places to stop in an emergency. As I have said, that £390 million, which is part of the £900 million, will be invested in ensuring that we have an extra 150 safe refuge areas at least every mile and, ideally, every three quarters of a mile. That is a huge improvement on what is available at the moment.

On the point made by Grahame Morris, I am delighted to hear that the M42 is working so well. I note his calls for better awareness. That is why the recommendation for the highway code to feature the emergency corridor manoeuvre is so important. I have just realised that I got John Spellar, who has the M42—apologies. I can confirm the continued working relationship between the Department for Transport and the Transport Committee, which has been an incredibly successful one.

My hon. Friend Mark Fletcher has conducted an exceptionally passionate campaign for improvements on his section of the M1, with its 13 miles of all-lane running motorway between junctions 28 and 30. The Roads Minister in the other place will have heard those calls. I appreciate my hon. Friend’s appreciation of the Transport Committee report and of the swift action taken by the Department.

My right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings has great experience as a Transport Minister, as does my hon. Friend Andrew Jones. It is correct that hard shoulders are not safe places. Indeed, one in 12 fatalities on our motorways takes place on hard shoulders. It therefore does not make sense to stop the progress that is being made and to send people on to motorways where there are hard shoulders or, even worse, on to local roads—smart motorways are safest, in terms of fatalities.

To conclude, as we have heard today, the Secretary of State takes the concerns expressed seriously, as demonstrated by our response to the Committee’s report and by the additional investment that we have committed to. I can say genuinely to right hon. and hon. Members that we are wasting no time in taking immediate steps to progress the actions set out in the Government response. I will keep the Commons and Parliament updated on progress. We will continue to be transparent with the data as it emerges, so that the public may assess for themselves the safety of motorways. I very much hope that they will have the confidence that they should have in our motorway network, especially smart motorways, thanks to the Transport Committee.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Chair, Transport Committee, Chair, Transport Committee 2:27 pm, 13th January 2022

Thank you for chairing the debate, Mr Hollobone. I also thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed.

I thank Grahame Morris and my hon. Friend Chris Loder, who represent the finest of our Committee membership. I am very fortunate as a Chair to have such brilliant members. We are not particularly diverse on gender, but we are on thought. We all work hard together to make recommendations. I am grateful to them.

I also thank my hon. Friend Mark Fletcher. I know junction 28 to 30 well—I was a candidate for two and a half years in North East Derbyshire. I would have been his neighbour had I been more successful there. He made good points about his fascinating local experience, and he has educated us all.

I heard fantastic speeches by my right hon. Friend Sir John Hayes and my hon. Friend Andrew Jones, who have experience in the Department—that was particularly fascinating. I thank them for their expertise—we will focus not just on recommendation 4, but on the lot, in delivering.

I thank Mr Dhesi for his words, and I thank the Minister of course. She is a popular presence, and we look forward to continuing to work with her.

With this pause, we clearly now have the opportunity to ensure that the safety record and evidence can be demonstrated properly on smart motorways. That must guide the Department and National Highways on what we do in future. Are they as safe as conventional motorways? Are they in fact even safer, which means that the case has been made for them to be rolled out further? We need to know that, and the time allows us to get that understanding and that crucial evidence base.

Equally during the pause, we have the opportunity to ensure that smart motorways can be retrofitted with the safety measures that the Committee has called for before. We know that those will now be delivered. We have to ensure that they are, and I know the Minister will take that seriously. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings is right: public perception is key. To get more people to use the motorway network, we must show them that it is safe. The RAC has shown that 84% of those polled were concerned about the removal of hard shoulders from the network and said that it compromised safety. That is crucial.

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).