Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 98) On Maintenance of Roads Grant 2002-03

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Mr. Clifton-Brown: The hon. Gentleman touched on an important point about average costs. If a long section of road is handed over, economies of scale

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would indicate that the costs of maintenance per mile or per kilometre are likely to be less than if it is a short section of road or lots of short sections of road. Therefore, an average cost could be considerably misleading.

Mr. Foster: I accept what the hon. Gentleman says, but my point is that this is an interim measure. When the Government move forward with their wholesale review of local government finance, I hope that they will take such issues into account. I merely seek the Minister's assurance that his Department will consider the matter.

May I raise a question on signage on detrunked roads? In all honesty, I should know the answer, but I do not. I have done some research but am slightly confused. I hope that the Minister will correct me if I am wrong or confirm my understanding if I am right. I understand that when a road is detrunked—with agreement between the Department and the local authority concerned—the money is handed over and the local authority takes responsibility. Nevertheless, in the vast majority of cases—if not all of them—the piece of road continues to form part of the primary route network. In such circumstances, the local authority has no additional power in respect of signage on the roads. The Minister might wish to consider giving that additional freedom to the local authorities that take on those responsibilities.

I said that I would be brief; therefore, I turn to my final point. I hope that the Committee will not be too critical of this parochial point. Discussions continue on detrunking the A36 and A46, two roads that directly affect my own local authority, Bath and North-East Somerset council. The council has been in discussion with the Minister's Department for some time, and agreement has been reached that the Department will provide funding for research into ways of improving traffic problems, particularly in the centre of Bath, before a final agreement is reached about detrunking.

I would be most grateful if the Minister took personal responsibility to check what is happening about the availability and utilisation of the funds. When we had the debate a year ago, the Under-Secretary of State gave me clear assurances that work was ongoing and that figures would be available relatively quickly. I have been disappointed by how slowly the work has progressed. I do not expect the Minister to have the details with him, but I ask for an assurance that he will investigate the matter.

Above all, I hope that the Minister will assure the Committee that we are dealing with a temporary measure and that the wider issues that the hon. Member for Cotswold and I raised will form part of the Government's wider thinking about local government finance. Perhaps he would also assure us—not least because of what we heard from the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions on the Floor of the House during Questions today—that this is the last time that we will have an order in this form before the Committee.

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5.4 pm

Mr. Jamieson: I am pleased to be able to respond to Opposition Members' points.

The hon. Member for Cotswold said that Members may wish to attend this debate to raise particular matters about their constituencies. If that is the case, I am rather surprised that more Opposition Members have not turned up. The one Opposition Member who is actually a member of the Committee and present is the hon. Member for Bath.

I shall begin by dealing with the points made by the hon. Member for Cotswold. He asked how many more kilometres of road will be detrunked. That will largely depend on negotiation, but we are aiming for another 1,400 km after this year. The discretion about which he asked will come when the roads are incorporated in the standard spending assessment system. He asked—the hon. Member for Bath also referred to this—how many more special grant reports there will be. That will, of course, depend on the detrunking process and whether we need any other reports when it is complete. He must appreciate that not all the orders are agreed as negotiations with some local authorities are still ongoing.

The hon. Member for Cotswold made a big deal about funding and local authorities. I can tell him that the people who negotiate on behalf of local authorities with the Highways Agency are not pussycats. They are well informed about highway matters and funding because they are experienced in managing the network. They currently manage 96 to 97 per cent. of the network and are highly experienced. They are not going to be hoodwinked, as he suggested, by us or the Highways Agency into accepting less money than they might have done for the maintenance of detrunked roads. A road can be detrunked only if a local authority has agreed to take responsibility for it under the pricing in the order. Those are carefully negotiated and agreed arrangements between the Highways Agency, acting on behalf of the Department, and the local authority.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Foster: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Jamieson: I will give way to the hon. Member for Cotswold.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The Minister says in a rather global way that the arrangements have been agreed. Has a full survey been carried out on each road? If one does not carry out a full survey, one cannot possibly know how much maintenance a road needs. If full surveys have been carried out, has a full schedule of works been agreed so that everybody knows what is expected of all parties?

Mr. Jamieson: The Highways Agency has a full schedule of works needed on the roads for which it is responsible. It has made a careful analysis of those roads' condition, and that will form part of its discussion with the particular highways authorities. It would be a foolish highways authority that went into such a negotiation without having seen that sort of documentation. I am sure that elected councillors would not allow officers to sign up to that unless those

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officers had all the information in front of them. The hon. Gentleman should have more faith in his colleagues in local government because they generally drive a hard bargain on behalf of the people whom they represent. He should therefore be assured on that.

If it were shown in subsequent years that the amount of money was inadequate, the highways authority could look to the local transport plan and make a bid under it. Although such circumstances would be exceptional, a local authority would have an escape route to deal with the problems that he raised.

Mr. Foster: I am sure that the Minister is a very good poker player because he has no intention of revealing too much of his hand. In light of the way in which he phrased his response to the hon. Member for Cotswold, is there flexibility in discussions between the Department and a local authority on the sum of money per kilometre to allow for the possibility of a higher sum? Is that sum just a starting point for negotiations?

Mr. Jamieson: The simple answer to that is yes. When I answered the points about the adequacy of funds, the hon. Member for Cotswold asked whether some of the roads had already transferred to local authorities—and they have. That covers quite a few of the questions that he asked. He asked about annexe C and whether some of the roads had already been transferred. He then asked about future funding, as did the hon. Member for Bath. That will depend on the final settlement of local authority funding. I shall not wander into the vagaries of that during this debate, much to the disappointment, I am sure, of some Committee members. Future funding will largely depend on other negotiations.

The hon. Member for Bath complained that I was saying the same thing. Perhaps I should have stood up and said, ''I refer the hon. Gentleman to my hon. Friend's speech of a year ago.'' That is probably what he hoped. He should not be too surprised. If we are saying the same thing, the words will come out similarly. That may come as a surprise to a Liberal Democrat.

Mr. Foster: I praised the Minister for it.

Mr. Jamieson: I am glad to hear that the hon. Gentleman praised me for it; I am very pleased about that. I am glad that he so assiduously reads the words of the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead). I worry sometimes about people who obviously sit under the bedclothes at night with a flashlight reading old editions of Hansard, but if that is the hon. Gentleman's bag, let him do it.

Mr. Foster: Does the Minister acknowledge that as a result of my diligence I have uncovered some additional 500 km of trunk roads in this country?

Mr. Jamieson: I am afraid that I may have to disappoint the hon. Gentleman on that point as well.

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Perhaps we can get some clarification on it and drop him a line.

The hon. Gentleman asked a similar question, which I think I have answered, about the new system of local government funding. That depends on negotiations that are taking place, and will of course reflect the question that he asked about the freedom of local authorities to spend the money as they think fit.

I hope that the hon. Member for Cotswold agrees that, in the interim period, money transferred from the Highways Agency under the proposals on detrunking roads should be spent on highway matters. It does not have to be spent on a particular detrunked road, but we have a responsibility in handing money to a local authority to ensure that the money is spent on highway matters. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bath says no. He probably wants the money to be spent elsewhere. Local councils will have to square that in the areas that they represent. One of the major local complaints is about the condition of the roads, and he will have to square that with the voters in the area.

 
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