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Baroness Blatch: My Lords, is it a coincidence that the 1 per cent of roads under maintenance--as with the noble Lord, Lord Richard--is always in the area in which I drive? However, can the Minister tell the House what the budget would have been for this year, taking into account the planned increases by the previous government, and what the actual budget is for this year under the present Government?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am not sure to which budget the noble Baroness is referring. Is she referring to maintenance or the total figure for roads? As she will know, we reviewed the previous road programme, which did not have any fixed start dates or fixed funding. It is therefore difficult to compare it. However, present expenditure on roads in total is approximately £1.7 billion.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, the experiment on the M4 bus lane will last for some months yet. All the information and monitoring so far indicates that by turning what was previously a filter lane into a bus lane, the flow of both public transport and taxis has been improved.
Lord Peston: My Lords, has any advice been given to the Highways Agency as to when it should engage in road repair? In my experience and that of most noble Lords it seems to specialise in repairing roads during holidays or weekends--if one is heading for the coast--when one wants to use them. It does not seem to occur to the agency to repair the roads at times when they are not used. That contrasts rather unfavourably, say, with France where we can drive enormous distances on outstanding roads and see no sign of maintenance. We get held up by car crashes, but we all know that the French are not yet ready for the motorcar anyway.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, in general the Highways Agency standing guidelines are to ensure minimum disruption. It is more difficult to carry out some maintenance in winter than it is in summer and additional safety problems arise when doing it at night rather than in the day. Nevertheless, the agency tries to do as much maintenance as possible outside peak periods.
Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, I heard the Minister say that minimum disruption is the target of the agency. However, until I heard him say so, I had no idea that its failure was so total. Can he confirm that?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am not sure that I fully understood the noble Lord's question. However, the position of the Highways Agency is that it will, with its contractors, plan to minimise the disruption to the flow of traffic. Sometimes it is inevitable that peak periods of traffic will be hit. We are trying to improve the degree of disruption and there are performance targets for the Highways Agency to that effect.
Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, can the Minister tell the House why many of us who travel along motorways often find that nothing is happening on the repair area, but we are still held up? Why is no repair work taking place on such roads during long periods of the day?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, were the noble Lord not driving so fast through such areas, I suspect that he would observe that some testing, measuring and assessing needs to carried out before the actual work with the bulldozers and the task in earnest begins. It is perhaps over-simplistic to underestimate the degree of complexity that maintenance entails.
Baroness Sharples: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that information. However, it is not the same information that I have received. Is the noble Lord aware that I previously asked this Question in 1989 and that in those 10 years North Dorset District Council has spent over £400,000 on research with the University of Southampton into this extremely unpleasant fly? It is very small but when you get bitten this results in blistering and aching joints. Indeed, since I retabled the Question, I understand from a number of noble Lords that they have been bitten by a similar fly, which is also to be found by fast-flowing rivers in other parts of the country.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, the information I have in relation to north Dorset in particular is that the number of such incidents has fallen very dramatically since the noble Baroness tabled the original Question about 10 years ago. Indeed, there has been a very substantial programme to limit the number of larvae produced, estimated to have brought about a reduction of about 90 per cent. Moreover, the number of medical incidents has fallen from 400 at the time of the original Question to around 45 last year. Therefore, in what is the main concentration area for this fly--namely, the river Stour in Dorset--there has been a very dramatic cut in such incidents. Of course, there are other blackfly of an entirely different species around the country, which I suspect is what noble Lords have encountered. However, the Blandford fly is being well dealt with in Dorset.
Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, has the noble Lord seen the report that Highland midges have moved south, and, indeed, have gone over the Border into England? Does the noble Lord think that this is due to global warming or results from their distaste for devolution with the connected prospect of fewer English tourist visitors upon whom to feed?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I could not possibly comment on the motives of the Scottish Highland midge, which is some way away and, I can assure the noble Baroness, Lady Sharples, has not yet reached Dorset. If that particular Scottish pest is heading south, it would suggest that climatic rather than political changes account for such movement.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I agree absolutely with the second question of the noble Baroness. As regards her first question, I believe that that fly is a separate species. However, should further biological information come my way, I shall inform the noble Baroness.
Lord McNair: My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether this problem has arisen since the 1960s? I was at school in Blandford and I used to canoe regularly on the Stour but I do not remember being bitten.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I suspect that the noble Lord may well have been canoeing extremely fast along the river because, up until the late 1980s, there was an increasing number of incidents. That is why the local authorities and the health authorities had to take such action. This fly is concentrated in the more slow-moving parts of the river Stour. I believe that it was a pest for some time before the noble Baroness tabled the original Question.
Lord McNally: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he agree that there has been a pattern to media stories over recent years; for example, some editor commits a transgression; the Press Complaints Commission falls on the issue to deaden it; in pile the Home Office, or the Department for Culture, Media and Sport; and then the issue disappears until the next transgression? Does the noble Lord also agree that, rather than have this ad hoc method of dealing with such problems regarding privacy, criminal memoirs and a whole range of media issues, it is now time to set up a Royal Commission on the press? It could look at both technological changes and changes in social behaviour, together with many other issues, which have changed radically since the press as a whole was looked into nearly 25 years ago when the third Royal Commission on the press since the war was established by my noble friend Lord Jenkins.
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