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Unadopted Roads

1.29 pm

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): I wish to return to the subject of unadopted roads—or private roads, as they are sometimes called—which was raised in the previous Parliament by my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint). I will not go into the minutiae of the legal position on adopted roads, as that is reasonably well known by people who have explored this arcane subject, and it was run through at length in the debate five years ago. Instead, I wish to draw attention to ways in which we might address a problem that is genuinely held to be significant by many people, and to give a couple of examples.

It is thought that there are about 4,000 miles of unadopted roads in this country. However, that figure might be incorrect; there has not been a survey on the subject for 50 years so. At present, we do not know enough to query it. Later in the debate, I will suggest that we should do something to address that lack of recent information.

There are 31 unadopted roads in Swadlincote, which is a small, ex-mining town of 35,000 people in my constituency. Some of those roads are of considerable significance; they play an important role in the highway network, as they often link two adopted highways, and are used as through-routes by people who do not live along them. That can cause considerable nuisance for the people who do live alongside such roads. They face several problems. They have to bear the cost of maintaining the road—until it becomes dangerous, at which point the local authority can assist. Unauthorised parking can be a problem, and they have almost no recourse to deal with that. They also have the problem of people dumping cars and rubbish. They can be subject to a claim by a person who has an accident on the road, if it can be shown that they could reasonably have done something about it. Those are regular causes of concern and expense to the people who live along such roads.

However, it must be acknowledged that most people who have bought houses in such roads are aware that they have also bought those liabilities. I shall explore ways in which we could deal with that, because they have something to gain from rectifying this situation, so the cost of the solution to it should not be wholly—or even largely—paid by the public.

How big is the problem? It would be helpful if, for the first time in 50 years, we tried to find out how many unadopted roads there are in this country, and how long they are. As I have said, the last survey was done in 1960. We now have an opportunity to collect new data, which would help us to identify the scale of the difficulty that we face.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. David Chidgey (In the Chair) : Order. Under the rules of the House, it is necessary for hon. Members who wish to intervene to give prior notice to the hon.

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Member who has secured the Adjournment debate and the Minister who is responding, and for both of them to give their agreement to those interventions.

Mr. Todd : My hon. Friend has spoken to me.

Mr. David Chidgey (In the Chair) : If the hon. Gentleman and the Minister agree to accept the intervention, the Chair has no objection.

Ms Walley : I am most grateful. Unadopted alleyways have also long been a matter for concern. With regard to my hon. Friend's call for a survey, does he agree that it is equally important to get a sense of how many unadopted alleyways there are, and to find the funds to make them up?

Mr. Todd : With regard to unadopted roads, one of my concerns is non-vehicular access. Alma road in Newhall is a link between two adopted roads. Unadopted roads are an important part of the pedestrian network of the town, which is of equal concern to the Government. It is also important to keep those safe and free from nuisance and hazard, so I understand the point made.

Data collected could recognise the cost of contributions towards unadopted roads in the local government funding formula. Some people think that there is no public cost for unadopted roads, but the public purse bears a liability when it can be shown that there is a danger. Regularly within Swadlincote, small contributions are made towards dealing with large potholes appearing in unadopted roads. That is a cost to local government, and it would be reasonable to recognise such roads in the funding formula as a cost to the public purse.

Such recognition would also help to strengthen the identity between the local authority and the residents of unadopted roads, which is currently sadly lacking. Most local authorities take the robust view that they are not generally a matter for their concern unless someone is likely to be badly hurt.

Until the poll tax and then the council tax were introduced, living in an unadopted road was recognised in the bill paid to the local authority—it affected the rateable value of one's house and therefore the rates bill. That is no longer the case, except if one lives on the cusp of a council tax band, when the difference in valuation between a property in an undadopted road and one in a normal road would be significant in tipping the balance into a different band valuation. There is a strong argument for giving a discount to residents of unadopted roads on the part of the council tax bill relating to the highway authority. It should not be a large discount, because such residents use the rest of the road network. Nevertheless, they feel that they do not get any value for the money that they pay the council for maintaining the roads outside their houses, and that should be reflected in how much they pay towards their local authority's costs.

Obviously, highway authorities, especially in the past 10 or 15 years, have found it increasingly difficult to do anything much about unadopted roads. In my area, the last unadopted road that was improved—John street, Swadlincote in 1995—was the last one that the local council was prepared to contemplate. The Minister will

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surely deal with this matter in his response, but I understand that local authorities can choose to spend their money on unadopted roads should they feel that they are a high priority. At the moment, however, most find that there are many other calls on their purses besides the individual needs of relatively small numbers of citizens, however acute that need may be. Certainly, the retort from a Derbyshire county council spokesman on the local radio this morning was typical: he said that people knew what they were getting into when they bought the property, so it is tough on them. Such a robust approach would not cut much ice with many of the residents, who feel that they pay substantial amounts of council tax and expect higher levels of service. It is not, however, an untypical answer.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): In my experience, many people living on unadopted roads recognise their responsibility. Does my hon. Friend agree that residents need a solution whereby costs could be made affordable by spreading payment over a period of time, as was suggested in a letter to me last August from the Minister who formerly had responsibility for the subject, my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble)?

Mr. Todd : Indeed, I shall turn to that exact issue. As I said, local authorities have many calls on their budgets and I understand why the issue would have low priority. However, I have approached other bodies.

I mentioned with intent that Swadlincote is a former coalfield town, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley will agree that the problem is especially prevalent in such communities. Often, the towns and villages were built without the great care and attention to utilities and public services that we would expect these days. I have put it to the Coalfields Regeneration Trust that a perfectly good use of its resources would be the provision of a small amount towards environmental improvements based on the adoption of unadopted roads, because that would lead to a significant environmental gain. An unadopted road, through no fault of its owners, often attracts the worst possible nuisances, such as abandoned cars and rubbish. The adoption of such roads would have a wider impact than the benefit of the individuals who live along them. I would welcome the Government's support in drawing the benefit of that opportunity to the attention of the Coalfields Regeneration Trust and other bodies that provide funds for coalfields communities. A pump-priming approach would help.

I turn to funding. As my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley said, some works involve a substantial cost. The family who appeared on the radio with me this morning live on Vicarage road in Woodville. I guess that it would cost about £100,000 to adopt that road. I am afraid that most people who live on unadopted roads—the phrase "private roads" gives the impression of exclusivity and poshness—in my area are generally people without substantial means to contribute to large-scale capital schemes.

A method of dealing with the problem has been explored in correspondence that my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley shared with me. I have also received a similar letter in response to my inquiry. That method is to allow the cost of the scheme to be spread

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over several years and to be set against the value of the property on such a road when sold. It is undoubtedly true that the improvement of an unadopted road makes a significant difference to the value of a property, and a householder making such an investment would experience a good return. That approach should be commended to local authorities.

I have a small query about how local authorities account for a debt that is not recoverable for several years. Is there an acceptance of that funding mechanism? Will the Minister tell us whether that method of deferring a payment for up to 30 years and holding the payment against the value of the sale of the property is acceptable and commendable to local authorities?

A cash flow difficulty would be caused by the initial payment to fund the scheme. In most cases, the costs are significant, and if the money were not recovered for many years, the council would face a cash shortfall, which would take money from other services. That is why I have suggested co-operation with other agencies to blunt the edge of the cash flow problem. I want a capital fund to be established that would be available for such projects. That could be drawn down to allow projects to proceed, and as money was repaid to the fund, it could finance further qualifying projects. Such a scheme would encourage local authorities to support a solution to the problem rather than giving it a low priority because they believe that people knowingly buy into the problem by purchasing an affected property. People deserve a higher quality response that offers a way ahead. I hope that some of my suggestions will help to relieve that difficulty, and will provide a solution for hundreds of my constituents and many thousands of people throughout the country.

1.44 pm

The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar) : I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) for having raised the issue. It is a matter of concern not only in his constituency but elsewhere, especially in the north and midlands and in many of our traditional industrial towns. In answer to one of his queries, my advice is that 1972 is the latest year for which figures are available, when there were estimated to be about 40,000 such private streets throughout England and Wales, amounting to some 4,500 miles.

Mr. Todd : The 1972 figures are merely an extrapolation on the 1960 data collection. We have not collected the data since 1960. In 1972, someone estimated what might happen in the intervening 12 years.

Mr. Spellar : That was the advice that I received.

In 1990, it was estimated that it would cost more than £2 billion to make up all private streets for adoption. Given the slow rate of local authorities' making up private streets, it is unlikely that the figure has reduced much since, although I accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) about alleyways. I have encountered the problem in Smethwick, in my constituency, too.

It might help if I set out the background of private street works law. A private street is a highway that is not maintainable at public expense by a highway authority.

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The Highway Act 1835 introduced a provision under which, for a street to become publicly maintainable, the responsible public authority must deliberately resolve to adopt it. Nowadays, that authority will usually be the local highway authority—in the case of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire, for example, Derbyshire county council. In general, responsibility for maintaining a private street will fall to the owners of the properties adjoining it—known as frontages—who are also legally liable to meet the expenses that the council incurs in making up the street for adoption. As a result, as he said, a significant number are likely to be in a poor state of repair.

Part XI of the Highways Act 1980 contains what is known as the private street works code, under which a street works authority can resolve to make up a private street at any time. After the works, the street is usually adopted. The authority may apportion the expenses of making up the street among the frontages by reference to the frontage lengths of individual properties. However, it may also modify the apportionments if it has resolved in advance to take account of the extent of benefit, if any, that individual properties derive from the works. In addition, the authority may, if it sees fit, contribute to the cost of the scheme itself.

Provision is made for property owners to object to their apportionments if they choose to do so. In the last resort they can appeal to the Secretary of State against the sum demanded. That is the extent of the Department's involvement in individual cases.

Caroline Flint : Will my right hon. Friend confirm the advice of the former Minister responsible, my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble), that a local authority may proceed with making up a road for adoption after consultation and that that does not require unanimity among the residents?

Mr. Spellar : I hope to come to that later.

I now turn to local authorities' discretion to contribute from their own resources. Local authorities have the power to moderate street works charges in four ways. First, as I said, they may take account of the extent of benefit received. They would use that power in order to reduce the charge payable by a householder with a long-flank frontage who may receive little or no benefit from the works. They may make up the difference themselves, rather than re-apportioning the cost among frontages.

Secondly, they may allow payments by instalments. Thirdly, in cases of hardship, the authority may waive reimbursement of the principal sum due until the property is sold and in the meantime recover from the householder the interest on the outstanding charge only, to which my hon. Friends the Members for South Derbyshire and for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) alluded. Finally, local authorities have a general discretion to bear all or part of the cost of a scheme.

In that context, it is worth noting that local authorities have the power to use proceeds from the sale of assets—generally 25 per cent. in the case of council houses and 100 per cent. in the case of most other

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receipts—on capital expenditure of any kind in any year. It is then for authorities themselves to determine how those usable capital receipts are spent, in the light of local priorities and circumstances.

On 12 June, we announced a draft local government Bill, which proposes to give authorities new freedoms to respond to the needs of their local communities. The Bill includes a new capital borrowing system, which means that authorities will be free to borrow without the Government's consent as long as they can afford the debt. Authorities will be able to use their revenues to finance additional borrowing and that will give them greater autonomy and responsibility for their own decisions in making capital investment. Although local authorities have the power to make payments, I accept that they might not necessarily wish to do so.

As my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire said, there is no doubt that many who live on private streets—particularly those whose houses have long frontages that make them liable to correspondingly high charges—see their liability to pay for private street works charges as unfair. Obviously, I have sympathy for those for whom the charges create a degree of hardship, but liability for street works appear in the local land charges register and should therefore be—and in many cases has been—taken into account in the purchase price of the house. Many householders have already paid for having their own streets made up and might well feel aggrieved at a decision to make the service free to future users—especially in residential roads where the benefits will be enjoyed almost entirely by householders and their visitors rather than by the public at large.

My hon. Friend informed me in advance of the debate of several points of interest to him, several of which he raised earlier. I shall address those points now. First, he suggested that the Government's formula for calculating local authorities' highway maintenance allocations be changed to reflect the length of unadopted roads in each authority area. That option may seem attractive, but many authorities do not have legal responsibility for such roads.

My hon. Friend also suggested allowing residents of unadopted roads a discount on their council tax. However, council tax is essentially a means of contributing to the cost of providing a range of services throughout a local area rather than a specific charge for particular services used or enjoyed directly by individual households. That argument has been used in other contexts.

Council tax represents about 25 per cent. of local government revenue, with the rest provided by Government grant, non-domestic rates, parking fees and rents. At present, there are no specific reductions for residents of households where responsibility for roads and other services have not been adopted, but neither are there reductions for other groups, such as those who do not have children at school, own a car or currently require social services.

Mr. Todd : The Minister expands a familiar argument. I draw to his attention the fact that provision for schools and social services exists and it is up to citizens whether to use them, but that does not apply to the provision for a road outside someone's house.

Mr. Spellar : That argument may not appeal to the constituent who does not have children and who sees the

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percentage of council tax that is spent on local education. The level of a household's bill depends primarily on the valuation band to which the dwelling has been assigned. The provision of facilities is a factor that may influence the valuation band in which a property is placed.

As to extra capital funding for unadopted roads, transport capital funding is made available through local transport plans and is provided in two forms. For approved schemes—those of a gross cost exceeding £5 million—resources are provided out of specific ring-fenced funds for the scheme in question and cannot be used for other purposes. For smaller, integrated transport measures—those under the £5 million mark—and for road maintenance, resources are provided as a single, block allocation, and authorities have the discretion to spend that in line with the aims, objectives and priorities established in their plans.

The Government's commitment to improving transport provision after years of under-investment is reflected in the £8.4 billion package that we announced to implement the first five-year transport plans. The £1.3 billion allocation announced for the first year of the plans—2001–02—is more than double the previous year's funding. The Government's introduction of local government transport plans demonstrates that we believe that local government, not central Government, is best placed to address the issues faced by communities, which is why the authorities have the discretion to utilise the capital resources to reflect those local circumstances and priorities.

On making road-adoption schemes part of wider coalfield regeneration projects and obtaining funding from third parties, the Coalfields Regeneration Trust is solely funded by Government money and was not set up to provide funding for large capital infrastructure projects. It is an independent charitable trust, and its priorities are to get people back to work using education, training and community enterprise.

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However, my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire may want to confirm with the trust the position in his area.

My hon. Friend also asked whether there were accounting barriers to an authority allowing a householder to defer the costs to which he or she is liable for bringing a road up to maintainable standards until the property was sold. That question was also raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley, and I am not aware of any obvious barriers. In such circumstances, the authority would in effect be making a loan to the householder, and the capital financial system does not place restrictions on such activities. The authority would simply need to show the outstanding sums on its balance sheets as amounts owing to it. I hope that that assists my hon. Friends.

As I said earlier, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire for raising this issue. That said, the existing system has enough flexibility to allow sensible decisions to be taken, and I hope that what I have said will meet some, if not all, of his concerns.

Ms Walley : In view of my right hon. Friend's comments about the possible role of the coalfields regeneration trust, does he agree that if the trust were able to assist in some way, it could play a tremendous role in local regeneration and help to achieve its three prime objectives? Will he support us and make that approach to the trust?

Mr. Spellar : Obviously, we would have to examine the resources that are available to the trust and the current demands on it. Local circumstances may make that more likely in some areas than in others, but I undertake to examine that point and see what progress can be made.

We have touched briefly on some of the issues, and if any of my hon. Friends wants to write to me on specific questions, I shall examine them and answer the points in further detail.

Question put and agreed to.

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