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

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Mr. Foster: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Jamieson: I shall come back to the hon. Gentleman. I want to refer to an earlier point while it is in my mind.

Both hon. Members asked questions about the signage and the status of the road. If the highways authority keeps the road to the same standard as the Highways Agency had previously kept it, and bearing in mind that there is no real change to the signage, it will be impossible for the average road user to discern which road is a trunk road. That would happen only if the local authority allowed that road to deteriorate to such a point that it was obvious that it was being neglected. The main trunk roads that are dealt with by the Highways Agency are kept to a very high standard. Dare I say it, the standards are some of the highest for any roads in the world.

Mr. Foster: The Minister touches on an important point, but his answer was somewhat disappointing. Does he agree that, in the fundamental review of local government funding that is under way, the transfer of trunk roads to local authorities will have to form part of the new mechanism? Further, does he agree that the Government said specifically in their White Paper that they intend to free-up local councils to enable them to make decisions? Does he therefore rather regret saying that the Government will still have the responsibility to ensure that councils continue to take responsibility for the maintenance of the road? Surely, whether or not he and I agree on the importance of road maintenance, in the spirit of his Department's White Paper, local people should make such decisions. They should be responsible to their local electorate on that matter; it is not a matter for diktat from central Government.

Mr. Jamieson: The answer to the hon. Gentleman's questions is yes. However, I did refer to the interim period. In the interim period, when we are transferring money from the Highways Agency to highway authorities, we have the responsibility to ensure that those funds are spent on the roads and other roads for which that money was originally intended. In

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subsequent years, the funding arrangements could be very different. The hon. Gentleman is quite right—we do want to hand back to local authorities some of the responsibility and ability to spend as they wish that was taken away from them by the party of the hon. Member for Cotswold when it was in government. We wish to put some of that right.

The hon. Member for Bath asked a question that I think we have already covered—whether the transfer can go ahead without the local authority's agreement. It cannot go ahead unless the local authority agrees, but there are some exceptional circumstances, which he can see in the document, in which an order about that could be laid before Parliament. I must say to him that it would be in very unusual circumstances that we would want to go down that road. It would be very much a last resort, which, in my view, we should not undertake lightly.

Despite the rather negative view that we heard from the hon. Member for Cotswold, many local authorities are looking forward to managing some of the roads themselves. They want them as part of their responsibility. If they had not, they would not have come into the discussions and negotiated taking over the roads.

Mr. Foster: What about signage?

Mr. Jamieson: I thought that I had covered that earlier; I said that signage would remain the same. There will be no change, so road users will not notice a difference.

Mr. Foster: The Minister has confirmed what I thought, but I also asked whether he was prepared to consider a degree of flexibility in that arrangement, whereby local authorities taking on responsibility for trunk roads might be able to alter or add to the signage. There is a problem at the moment about where such responsibility will lie for a detrunked road that is part of the primary route network. Will the Minister consider the real problems about responsibility for signage?

Mr. Jamieson: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Any change to signage would have to be made within the existing regulations on roads managed by local authorities that give them any discretion in such matters. I am mindful of the fact that we would not want to see very different signage popping up in different parts of the country. The roads concerned are trunk roads, and people travelling along them will not notice much difference between the current situation and the new one. We want continuity in the signage.

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Mr. Clifton-Brown: I should like to raise two matters. Will the Minister confirm absolutely that the certificate that he will require will in turn require the local authority to spend the money only on roads in general, rather than on a particular trunk road? That is important.

Secondly, I think that the Minister said in answer to one of my many questions that some roads have already been transferred. If so, that raises an important issue of parliamentary accountability. I think it fairly arrogant of the Minister, to put it gently, to have transferred any of the roads before this House had a chance to discuss the order. Given that, what on earth is the point of us being here this afternoon to discuss the order? Why not just do the whole thing by ministerial order? The Minister has a duty of politeness, if nothing else, to explain to the Committee why the roads have already been transferred.

Mr. Jamieson: In some cases, local authorities have taken over responsibility—a relatively short time ago. If the order were not passed by the House, we would return to the previous situation. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has too much to worry about there. The local authorities are anxious to get on with the job and we are anxious for them to do so, but there is no problem of parliamentary procedure. If this order were not passed today, responsibility would revert back to the Highways Agency and the funding would come back to the Department through that agency.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the money transferred for detrunking has to be spent on the particular detrunked road. I think that I have answered that twice, but I will do so a third time if he wishes. The answer is no. The answer to whether it has to be spent on the highway system in that local authority is yes. I hope that that clarifies that matter for the hon. Gentleman. I have put it in quite simple terms, which I hope is helpful to him.

We have had a useful debate on a not too contentious issue, but one that is rather important for many local authorities. We have had very good feedback from the large majority of the authorities which are looking forward to managing the roads.

Question put and agreed to.


    That the Committee has considered the Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 98) (HC 727) on Maintenance of Roads Grant 2002–03.

Committee rose at twenty-one minutes past Five o'clock.

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The following Members attended the Committee:
Benton, Mr. Joe (Chairman)
Brazier, Mr.
Bryant, Mr.
Clark, Paul
Foster, Mr. Don
Jamieson, Mr.

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Naysmith, Dr.
Organ, Diana
Russell, Ms Christine
Woodward, Mr.
Woolas, Mr.

The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(2):
Clifton-Brown, Mr. Geoffrey (Cotswold)

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