Speed Limits (Rural Lincolnshire)

Speed Limits (Rural Lincolnshire)
 
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Karen Bradley.)
 
7.13 pm
Stephen Phillips (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): It is a great honour and a privilege to have tonight’s Adjournment debate and to raise an issue that I know is of great importance to many of my constituents—the issue of speed limits in rural Lincolnshire. The existence—[Interruption.]
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. Those Members who are leaving the Chamber should do so quickly and quietly so that we can hear the Adjournment debate.
Stephen Phillips: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
The existence of speed limits on our roads does a huge amount to reduce road deaths and accidents, and appropriate speed limits, particularly in residential areas, offer clear benefits in safety. As my hon. Friend the Minister will know, a vehicle travelling at 20 mph at the onset of an incident will stop in time to avoid a child who is running out three car-lengths in front, while the same vehicle travelling at 25 mph—only 5 mph faster—will still be travelling at 18 mph at the three-car-lengths marker. A pedestrian hit by a car travelling at 18 mph is likely to suffer at least serious injury, and at that speed the effect on a child is roughly the same as the effect of falling backwards out of a first-floor window. A pedestrian who is struck at 20 mph has a 97% chance of survival; at 30 mph the figure is 80%; and at 35 mph it falls to 50%. It is plainly not appropriate for low speed limits to operate on every road, even in residential areas, but, as those in communities throughout my constituency tell me repeatedly, the setting and enforcement of proper limits in areas where pedestrians are likely to be found are critical to survivability rates.
The Government’s responsibility in all this is to set national default speed limits for different types of roads, and the present policy recognises—as it should—that residential areas need lower limits. However, local authorities can set different speed limits on roads where local needs and considerations suggest that the default limit is not appropriate. Many people living in a number of villages in my constituency say that their local speed limits are too high, and that Lincolnshire county council will not listen to their representations and lower them.
The current Government guidelines clearly state that although 30 mph is the standard speed limit for urban areas, a 40 mph limit may be used where appropriate. Roads considered suitable for 40 mph limits are those that are regarded as higher-quality suburban roads, or roads on the outskirts of urban areas where there is little development. Roads considered suitable for 40 mph limits should be wider than a standard urban street, and should have parking and waiting restrictions in operation and buildings set back from the road. There should be enough space for people on bikes, on horses and on foot to be segregated from the traffic, and there should be adequate crossing places.
Those guidelines, however, are not always followed. For instance, they do not apply, or have not applied, in the village of Fulbeck in my constituency. Fulbeck is bisected by a section of A road with a 40 mph limit, which is inappropriate. The village amenities are on both sides of the road. There is, for example, a popular children’s playground on one side, while the majority of dwellings are on the other. Children and elderly people struggle to cross what is a very busy road with blind bends, which is used by many heavy goods vehicles. Even fit adult villagers feel that they are taking their lives in their hands when they try to cross the road, and motorists are too often misled in a manner that leads to traffic incidents. Only this week, we saw a car leave the road. It is plain to all that the existing 40 mph limit in Fulbeck is simply too high, but my efforts—and those of villagers—to have it reduced to 30 mph have been to no avail, despite Government guidance that that should be the standard speed limit in all villages.
 
Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend on securing a debate that is very important to Lincolnshire. As a result of my campaign in the Allendale road in Hexham, we reduced the speed limit outside a school to 20 mph. Is that not exactly the sort of campaign that the Government should be encouraging? Should not Government guidance strongly recommend the lowering of speed limits in the vicinity of primary schools in particular?
Stephen Phillips: My hon. Friend has made an important and valuable point. I am making general points about speed limits in villages, but there is a very good case for them to be even lower near schools. In a number of parts of my constituency, there are 20 mph advisory speed limits. I think that those should be encouraged, and I hope the Minister will confirm that they will be.
The Government’s present guidelines also state that in exceptional circumstances—which must, by definition, be rare—a 50 mph limit may be used on higher-quality roads where there is little or no roadside development. Among the roads considered most suitable for that limit are primary distributors with segregated junctions and pedestrian facilities. They would usually be dual carriageway roads or bypasses that have become partially built up. Again, however—at least in Lincolnshire—many of my constituents feel that the guidelines are not being followed, and that there are 50 mph speed limits in residential areas where plainly they should not be.
One section of the B1188, which runs through Branston, is a good example. It carries in excess of 12,000 vehicles per day, more than many of the A roads that serve Lincoln. None the less, there is a 50 mph limit, despite the existence of a double bend with limited visibility and access to farmyards and residential properties on it. The combined cycle and pedestrian path on this stretch is narrow and in poor condition, and, in the vicinity of the double bend, it is adjacent to the carriageway, with no kerb or verge to protect users. Indeed, it is in such poor condition that many cyclists prefer to use the road, further increasing the risk of collision.
A 50 mph limit is also in place through West Willoughby, a small village on a main A road in my constituency, where the road has a blind bend with private and farm entrances, a bus stop in each direction, and a post box on one side only. There is also a blind summit just outside the village, which considerably restricts the view of drivers both travelling on the main road and trying to turn out on to it. Slow and large farm vehicles are of course a particular hazard in that area.
In both those cases, there has been no reduction in speed limits in accordance with the Government’s guidelines, despite strong urging from me and the communities affected. In those cases, as in that of Fulbeck, I would like the Minister to undertake to come to the communities concerned and to look at the situation with me and do all he can to persuade the county council to follow the guidance his Department has given.
I have already mentioned the fact—and it is a fact—that Government guidelines are clear that a village should have a 30 mph speed limit. The present policy in Lincolnshire simply does not allow for that, and instead counter-intuitively insists that a mean speed calculation be used to set the limit. In effect, speed limits are endorsing what are often dangerous speeds through residential village areas.
In the case of West Willoughby a mean speed calculation meant a reduction from the national speed limit to 50 mph, but anyone who has been through the village will know that that is still too fast for sight stopping distances on the blind bend. Current policy in Lincolnshire does not allow that to be taken into account, however. Indeed, so defective is the policy in its present formulation that it removes the possibility of any discretionary decisions by highways officers, meaning that obvious dangers cannot be considered when they clearly should be.
The mean speed method of establishing limits is ridiculous. In the course of calculating the mean speed, a recording of vehicle speeds is taken for a week, but that includes the speeds of drivers breaking the limit. Figures provided by Lincolnshire county council from one recording in West Willoughby gave an average of 800 vehicles a day exceeding the national speed limit of 60 mph, with 70 of them exceeding 70 mph. The mean speed is therefore pushed up by those breaking the law, and if that is used to set speed limits, that is clearly potty. If Government guidelines are to suggest the use of mean speeds for calculating speed limits, the methodology should be associated with rural open roads alone, not those passing through villages. I hope the Minister will tell me that he will make that clear to the county council.
In October 2011, I joined local campaigners from Fulbeck and West Willoughby in meeting my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), who was then the responsible Minister in the Department for Transport. He agreed with us that no effective response has been made to local concerns for years and that action was needed. What is needed now is for the current Minister to get involved directly. I hope he will be able to tell me this evening that that is what he proposes to do.
I accept that there are particular circumstances associated with the county in which I make my home, namely the lack of trunk roads and the high number of small villages scattered in ribbon developments. That necessarily means that efficiency will dictate higher speed limits on open roads than might be the case in urban settings, but to suggest that it should dictate the same in village situations is to run the risk that the safety of my constituents will be trumped by the need to keep traffic moving between major population centres, which I could not accept.
I know that the Government are undertaking a general review of their guidelines to local authorities on local speed limits. I therefore want the Minister to tell me that he will listen to the points made by me and my constituents, and that if common sense based on guidance issued by his Department is ignored, as is too often the case at present, he will act to make the guidance on village speed limits binding. Only then will I feel that I have done what I can to ensure the safety on Lincolnshire’s roads of those whom I was sent to this House to represent.
7.24 pm
 
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Stephen Hammond): I thank my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) for securing an important debate on speed limits, not only in Lincolnshire, but in rural areas more widely. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) made a contribution that reiterated that road safety in rural areas is a key priority for many hon. Members, and it is a top priority for the Government and for me. Clearly, road deaths and injuries are not just statistics; they are tragedies for all those affected. Behind the statistics are men, women and children. Much of the harm and cost is avoidable, and those things are not the inevitable consequence of road transport.
Britain is a world leader in road safety. Although we can be rightly proud of that fact, there can never be any room for complacency. As we set out in the strategic framework for road safety, the focus is on increasing the range of educational options for drivers who make genuine mistakes, while improving enforcement against the most dangerous and deliberate offenders.
It is well known that a byword of this Government is our belief in localism. Therefore I believe that, wherever possible, local authorities should have the freedom to make their own decisions about road safety, according to their own local needs, and to develop local solutions. In many cases, part of ensuring road safety must involve the speed limits set in those areas.
I thought it would be useful to state at the outset the Government’s position and thinking on the setting and enforcing of speed limits. As my hon. and learned Friend said, national speed limits are clearly not appropriate for all roads. Traffic authorities set local speed limits where local needs and conditions demand a speed limit lower than the national speed limit. Speed limits need to be suitable for local conditions, and I hope that many in the House would recognise that councils are best placed to determine what those limits are, based on local knowledge and the views of the community, and having regard to guidance issued by the Department, and to the law and enforcement methods available to them.
As part of our campaign to keep improving road safety, we have already given local authorities the power to introduce 20 mph speed limits and 20 mph zones on their roads if they believe it appropriate to do so. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham made the point about 20 mph speed limits around schools, and it is exactly this power that we would hope local authorities would use. The Department provides local authorities with guidance on setting local speed limits, including 20 mph speed limits, and the conditions in which they should be set, in order to ensure that they are set appropriately and consistently, while allowing the flexibility to deal with local needs and conditions. It is also worth remembering that speed limits are only one part of rural safety management; the nature and layout of the road, and the mix of traffic also need to be considered. To achieve a change in motorists’ behaviour and compliance with the local limits, supporting physical measures are often required, as is local publicity.
On enforcement, it is of course for the police and local authorities to decide whether to use speed cameras, and how they wish to operate them. However, the Government do not believe that cameras should be used as the default solution in reducing accidents, and nor should they be used as a way of raising revenue. Local organisations and local authorities should seek ways other than just cameras to improve safety on their roads.
As we explained in our strategic framework for road safety, local communities can directly influence the use of their roads, as my hon. and learned Friend said his community has been doing, by various methods, one of which is the community road watch scheme, whereby local volunteers work with the police to monitor local roads. They can often provide valuable data and suggestions as to local road safety. However, it must be for traffic authorities to set speed limits that strike a sensible balance between the needs of all road users.
My hon. and learned Friend mentioned the 40 mph zones. The Department particularly wanted to consider appropriate areas—outside villages and in some areas of natural beauty—for using 40 mph zones. The Department wrote to the County Surveyors Society traffic and safety group in 2009 offering funding for local authorities to look at having 40 mph zones with the speed limit painted on the carriageway, so that some of the road safety benefits could be introduced without the ugliness of repeater signs on poles by the roadside. However, it is a disappointment that, to date, no local authorities have taken advantage of that opportunity. There are some 40 mph zones in rural areas, but I hope that others will consider the advantages in signage and road safety of taking advantage of the scheme.
I hope that I have already made it clear that road safety is a key priority for the Government and for me personally and we continue to take steps to improve the safety of our roads. None the less, if we consider the differential impact of road accidents on rural and urban roads, we can see that some two thirds of fatal traffic accidents happened on rural roads. The Department’s analysis of collision and casualty data shows that in Great Britain in 2011 rural roads accounted for 66% of all road deaths and 82% of car occupant deaths, but under 45% of the distance travelled. It is clear that although we have seen an overall reduction in road deaths and an improvement in the road safety statistics, rural roads have proportionately suffered a major impact.
My hon. and learned Friend referred to the particular issue in Lincolnshire and I was disappointed to hear that there had been yet another accident in only the last week. Since 2008, the number of people seriously injured on rural roads has increased, bucking the general trend. As my hon. and learned Friend articulated well, local residents in the village of Fulbeck wish to see a lower speed limit. He was right to highlight his correspondence with my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), and I have read it through. It is clear that although the setting of local speed limits is primarily a matter for local authorities, and therefore an issue on which I am loth to and on which I would usually consider it inappropriate to intervene, I encourage local authorities to ensure that their speed limits are in line with the Department’s guidelines and are kept under review as circumstances change. The Government encourage local authorities to consider the introduction of more 20 mph limits and zones, particularly in built-up villages such as that described by my hon. and learned Friend. I look forward to discussing the issue with him when I visit his constituency later in the year.
My hon. and learned Friend referred to the Department’s guidelines to local authorities on speed limits. We have recently consulted on the revision and reissue of those guidelines on setting speed limits in urban and rural areas and we intend to publish the revised speed limit circular shortly. The guidelines should be used for setting all local speed limits on single and dual carriageway roads in urban and rural areas and aim to provide greater clarity to local authorities about where and how to set those limits. I hope they will find that helpful. The guidance should be the basis for assessing local speed limits and for developing route management strategies and the speed management strategies that can be used in local plans.
My hon. and learned Friend will be interested to note that the guidance will clearly show traffic authorities that they should keep their speed limits under review with changing circumstances and consider the introduction of more speed limits in urban areas, and primarily residential built-up village streets, to ensure greater safety for residents and users of the road. The Department would expect a 30 mph speed limit to be the norm in villages, but in many villages a 20 mph zone or limit might be more appropriate.
I note that in the correspondence between my hon. and learned Friend and my predecessor there was some dispute about what might or might not constitute a village or the middle of a village. The final decision on whether a settlement is a village for the purposes of setting a speed limit is a matter for local authorities, but my hon. and learned Friend will be interested to hear that we are offering guidance on what definition of a village should be used when a decision about appropriate speed limits is being made; it involves 20 or more houses on one or both sides of the road and a minimum length of 600 metres. If there are fewer than 20 houses we suggest that, when setting speed limits, traffic authorities should make special allowance for any other key buildings, such as a church, shop or school.
We are also developing a web-based tool, which will allow local authorities to assess the full costs and benefits of any proposed scheme and the speed limits most suitable for local conditions. We hope that all local authorities will take advantage of the scheme when reviewing their local speed limits.
As I have already stressed, the Government believe that wherever possible local authorities should have the freedom to make their own decisions so that they develop solutions most appropriate for their local needs. The Government do not intend to make our guidance on setting speed limits mandatory. However, we expect local authorities to use and follow the guidance in determining the circumstances for setting local speed limits. I hope that Lincolnshire county council, as it has suggested in correspondence to one of my hon. and learned Friend’s constituents, will use the guidance, keep speed limits under review and be able to access the new tool.
In closing, I should say that I will be delighted to accept my hon. and learned Friend’s kind invitation to both Fulbeck and West Willoughby; I understand that my officials and his office are already corresponding about a date for that. I look forward to seeing the problems that he has talked about tonight at first hand. I hope that representatives of Lincolnshire county council will have listened to his contribution and those of his constituents and that by the time I reach Fulbeck, the problem will have been solved.
Question put and agreed to.
7.37 pm
House adjourned.
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