Sir John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and to contribute to this important debate on smart motorways. The American poet Robert Frost spoke of two roads. We heard from the Select Committee Chairman that, in the case of smart motorways, there are at least three types of road. In a sense, that is the first point I want to make because that has led to confusion. As the Select Committee rightly concluded, there is a lack of understanding among many drivers of what smart motorways are, and particularly what all lane running is and what to do if, as the Committee put it, they break down in a live lane. As the Select Committee Chairman pointed out, 40% of breakdowns happen in such a lane.
People break down for two reasons. It is either a vehicular failure or some incident in the car, perhaps illness or accident. They need to get off the motorway quickly. The Select Committee also pointed out, however, that, contrary to what one might expect, hard shoulders are not actually the solution. They can cause more difficulties than they solve and can be dangerous places. Refuges are the answer, and I will return to that in a moment.
The key point I want to make at the outset is that the management and accountability of these matters needs to be urgently reviewed. When I was a Minister in the Department for Transport—I do not know if I am unique in the House, but I am certainly very unusual in having been appointed to that Department as a Minister three times—I was involved in setting up what was then Highways England. We looked at it very closely because we understood that the governance of that organisation needed to be such that Ministers could take power to direct it. Indeed, when I was speaking to my officials at the time, I said, “I want it to look as little like Network Rail as possible”, precisely because Ministers seem to have little authority over Network Rail.
There is the power of direction in respect of Highways England—what has now become National Highways—and it is necessary sometimes for Ministers to use that power, whatever their officials tell them. I do think, informed by the report and the excellent Government response to it, that from now on in Ministers need to take a very proactive approach when dealing with smart motorways.
The second point I want to make is about regulation. It has been made already, but it needs to be made again because it warrants amplification. The Office of Rail and Road is long established and, as a result, has a distinguished pedigree in regulating the railway system, but it has taken on roads only relatively recently, and it seems to me that the regulatory function needs to be enhanced, as the Select Committee has argued—that is a further way in which the decisions in respect of roads generally and smart motorways in particular can be made accountable. Both accountability to the regulator and being answerable to Ministers are vital as we move forward, and will provide the public with greater assurance about the safety of these new types of road. After all, they are a “radical change”, as the Select Committee says, to our road network, and confusing to drivers because of the various types of road that they may now encounter, particularly if they are not used to travelling a particular route. For instance, they may be going to a part of the country that they do not know and are therefore not familiar with the sort of road on which they are driving.
Finally, refuges are important not only because they provide an opportunity to get off the road in that 75-second period that my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) mentioned, but because of what they broadcast about safety to drivers. They provide important reassurance to drivers that the road is indeed safe and that, in the case of emergency, there is a means of escaping the circumstances in which they might find themselves. That is why I made that point emphatically as Minister. I am delighted that the Select Committee has made it too, and that the Government have acknowledged and recognised it, although I notice the caveat in the small print that it is sometimes not possible to provide refuges at quite the regular intervals that the Select Committee recommends. None the less, I think the Government heard the message that I have emphasised once again.
It is important to see this in context. The most dangerous roads are not motorways, and they are not smart motorways. There is a good argument for thinking creatively and imaginatively about how we can make our roads more effective, as the Select Committee Chairman has said, and so build additional capacity to deal with congestion and so on. However, in order to do so, we must take the public with us. This pause is a huge opportunity for a programme of education, so that people know what kind of road they will encounter, what to expect and to feel safe accordingly.
The Select Committee has, as it should, done the House and the Government a great service. The Committee exists not only to scrutinise Government but to think about things that the Government would not otherwise consider. This is a good example of that. The Minister is an extremely diligent member of the Government. I hope she will indeed take seriously these recommendations, which are clearly made on the basis of both good faith and good information, and that we can move ahead to roads that are effective and make travel easier and, fundamentally, much safer.