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.--(1) In the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991, after section 74 insert--
"Charge determined by reference to duration of works.
74A.--(1) The Secretary of State may make provision by regulations requiring an undertaker executing street works in a maintainable highway to pay to the highway authority a charge determined, in the prescribed manner, by reference to the duration of the works.
(2) The regulations shall not require charges to be paid to a local highway authority unless the Secretary of State has approved it for the purposes of the regulations by order made by statutory instrument.
We have recently finished consultation on draft regulations that set out the detailed arrangements for operating a scheme under section 74. However, we recognise that it may be necessary to introduce further measures if that does not result in a sufficient reduction in the present level of disruption. We will therefore review the situation to see whether further measures may be required on, for instance, powers for highway authorities to levy a charge on undertakers who carry out street works from the first day of works--so-called lane rental.
New clause 112 allows for regulations to implement such a scheme, but it does not try to set out every last detail in the Bill. Should we activate that power, we will consult extensively with relevant parties. The amendment sets out some issues that we want to cover in regulations, such as the level at which charges should be set and the way in which they would vary according to the location and timing of works. The regulations would be subject to affirmative resolution as I have already confirmed, so the House will be able to scrutinise the proposals in detail.
New clause 113 modifies the existing power in section 74 of the 1991 Act for the Secretary of State to issue regulations that require undertakers to pay a charge to the relevant highway authority where their works exceed the deadline that had previously been agreed with the authority. In preparing draft regulations, it became apparent that highway authorities would need clear evidence of when works began and ended in order to be able to charge undertakers.
Following discussion with the relevant parties, it was agreed that the best way of achieving that would be for the regulations to allow notice to be given by undertakers to the highway authorities stating the start and close of works. As the 1991 Act does not allow for such notices, the new clause provides for them to be given and for their content to be prescribed in regulations. As with lane rental, the amendment allows for several areas relating to the levying of charges to be dealt with in regulations, over and above those prescribed in the 1991 Act.
Mr. Syms: The Conservative party agrees with the general thrust of policy. All of us have suffered; many of our constituents have suffered not only because roadworks have been carried out, but sometimes because they have not been finished--parts of roads have been dug up and left for some considerable time. That has caused difficulty.
There has always been a requirement for people to tell the highway authority before they dig up roads. If we move towards a charging regime, setting precisely when work starts and finishes will be important. I wonder whether it will be possible for local authorities to engage in more co-ordination so that when one utility digs up a road another can take advantage of the fact and the same piece of road is not dug up three times in a period. If we
Mr. Don Foster: I endorse the comments made by the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) and I hope that the Minister will consider his suggestion seriously. All hon. Members present tonight, and hundreds who are not, could cite many examples of problems that have occurred in their constituencies. They may regret that they were not here tonight. This is one example where hon. Members on both sides of the House could obtain popular support back home by saying how desperately keen they are on the amendment.
While I accept the importance of, as the Minister puts it, consulting widely, does he accept that he should also consult quickly? What is his current estimate of when the regulations will be introduced--as I was delighted to hear, by affirmative decision by both Houses. This is the first occasion that I can recall in my nine years in Parliament that we have had two affirmatives to one negative resolution, and I welcome that.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I welcome the change. We hear a lot of calls nowadays for deregulation. This is one of the wonderful examples of deregulation that has been an unmitigated disaster. Those of us who have served on councils can wax lyrical about the problems that deregulation has caused. I will not go on about that because the other place has done us proud and I hope that the amendment will be universally acclaimed. As the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) said, we will all be acclaiming it in our press releases.
One of the biggest problems is caused when statutory undertakers have already done the work and apply retrospectively to the local highway authority to complete it. I wonder whether that can be examined. There is certainly a call for some universality in compensation, especially where businesses are affected. I never cease to be amazed by the difference between what undertakers offer. The same people are often affected, and it causes nothing but disagreement when they go to the same undertaker at different times and the sums offered are very different.
Another reason that the state of the roads is so bad is the number of previously dug trenches. That is one of my greatest bugbears. I hope that inspections are not only carried out immediately, but that a regime of long-term inspection can be set up so that extremely poor work can be dealt with.