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Session 2000-01
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Street Works (Charges for Unreasonably Prolonged Occupation of the Highways) (England) Regulations 2001

Third Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Wednesday 14 March 2001

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Draft Street Works (Charges for Unreasonably Prolonged Occupation of the Highways) (England) Regulations 2001

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Street Works (Charges for Unreasonably Prolonged Occupation of the Highways) (England) Regulations 2001.

It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your expert and authoritative chairmanship, Mr. Benton.

The Committee meets under the affirmative resolution procedure. The purpose of the regulations is to allow highway authorities to levy charges on undertakers should they fail to complete works on the highway by an agreed deadline. The Government are aware that the public and the business community are becoming increasingly concerned about the level of disruption caused to road users by street works carried out by statutory undertakers or contractors.

Undertakers such as those in the gas, water, electricity or telecommunications fields have statutory rights to carry out street works—which go back more than a century in some cases—as well as to provide services regarded as essential in a modern society. However, road users such as drivers, pedestrians, cyclists or those who use public transport are entitled to expect the minimum of disruption from such works.

At the end of 1999, the Government launched a consultation exercise to investigate possible options for reducing disruption. After considering the responses, we announced last April that we intended to activate the powers in section 74 of the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991 to charge for works that overrun. In the event, it proved necessary to take additional powers in the Transport Act 2000 to allow a charging regime to operate effectively. The regulations are the result of wide consultation with highway authorities, the utilities and many other interested bodies.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): What was the length of the consultation period?

Mr. Hill: The consultation was inaugurated in April last year and, therefore, took place over a period of approximately nine months.

As well as these regulations, this year we will be introducing regulations or codes of practice—or both, in some cases—on various aspects of street works practice, including inspection of works safety and the effective co-ordination of different works by utilities and highway authorities. At the end of the month, we will also be issuing a best practice guide for utilities and authorities, with the aim of bringing the worst performing practitioners up to the standard of the best.

Each initiative has a common aim—to ensure that work is carried out as quickly as possible with the minimum of disruption and that it is done safely and to a high standard.

Under the charging scheme, undertakers must inform the relevant highway authorities of forthcoming works and works in progress by means of a system of notices. For example, undertakers must provide notice of the start date of individual works and agree a reasonable date for the completion of those works with the highway authority. Undertakers must also provide formal confirmation that works have been completed, to enable the highway authority to determine whether the works have been finished within the agreed deadline or, should the works overrun, to calculate the charge to be levied on the undertaker. It will not be enough for undertakers to fill in the holes that have been made. The works will not be deemed to have finished until any spoil, unused material, signs and lights are removed and the road has been returned to its normal state.

The disruption caused by different works varies according to the size of the works and the amount of traffic on particular roads. The regulations take account of that by setting different maximum daily charges for different kinds of works. The charges that authorities may impose range from £2,000 a day for major work on the busiest roads to £100 a day for minor works of short duration on less busy roads. We recognise that some works need to be carried out urgently or are emergencies—for instance, gas leaks—when lives might be at risk. The regulations take account of that by setting lower charges than for ordinary works.

A large number of works that are carried out by utilities involve digging up of the road but take little time and cause minimal disruption. If those were included in the charging scheme, an immense burden would be placed on local authorities with no clear benefit. We have therefore agreed with authorities and utilities that no charges will be levied on works that last for less than three days. To ensure that the scheme does not become overly bureaucratic, it also makes sense to exclude certain types of work, such as those that do not involve breaking up the road surface, repairing manhole covers or replacing lamps.

The powers are intended to tackle the problem of disruption to road users. They are not meant purely as a revenue-raising scheme for local authorities. Having said that, regulation 8 allows authorities to keep revenue that is left over from charges, once the cost of operating the scheme has been subtracted, to spend on transport services in their area. I should make it clear that it is up to individual local authorities to decide whether they want to make use of those new powers. Clearly, as disruption is more of a problem in certain parts of the country than in others, it makes sense to allow decisions to be taken locally. More than 60 authorities have already informed us that they intend to operate charging schemes, and the powers have been designed to allow an authority to tailor the details of the charging scheme to the situation in its area. For instance, an authority can choose to reduce or waive charges in certain cases if it considers that there are extenuating circumstances. Alternatively, it can concentrate on particular roads or even particular undertakers if it deems it appropriate.

The regulations are, of course, not an end in themselves. We recently appointed consultants—Halcrow—to monitor closely how well the new powers work. If it turns out that they do not lead to a sufficient improvement and reduction in street works-related disruption, we will not hesitate to activate the additional powers under the Transport Act 2000 to allow highway authorities to charge undertakers from the start of works—lane rental. Indeed, we announced last month that Middlesbrough council will be allowed to operate a pilot scheme for lane rental starting later this year. We are considering whether further pilots are desirable. Affirmative regulations activating the lane rental powers for the purposes of the pilot schemes will be brought before the House later this year. We are also considering whether further measures will be necessary to help reduce disruption.

The regulations apply to England only, as is clear from their title. However, the devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are considering whether to introduce similar regulations and, if so, to what timetable.

The regulations provide highway authorities with important new powers to help to reduce disruption in their areas caused by street works. I ask the Committee to approve them.

4.38 pm

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole): I, too, am pleased to serving on a Committee under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton.

I welcome the regulations in principle, as many road users have experienced the great frustration of seeing cones, lights and blocked roads and, apparently, no work being done. Providing an incentive for companies that are digging up the road to finish their jobs speedily is probably the right way forward. However, I have several concerns about the regulations.

First, the Minister principally mentioned the utilities—gas, electricity and telecoms companies—rather than local authorities. As I understand it, the scheme is administered by highway authorities. However, on reading the statutory instrument, I could not find an exemption for local authorities to charge themselves for undertaking work when they are digging up the road, as they do on occasions. Will the Minister explain whether the regulations exempt local authorities? Do they exempt the Highways Agency? The Highways Agency is responsible for many roads and, either directly or through its agents, it undertakes works that may seem to be taking an age to be finished. Is it exempted? If so, is it right that local authorities should be exempt? Often, they are the worst offenders. If local authorities are exempt, what is the position of their subcontractors, which are often used for road repairs and may spend considerable time digging up or repairing a piece of road? I presume that if such firms remove the surface from a road, they will be caught under the regulations.

I turn to the time that works take and how that would be settled. A utility could write to a local authority and give an estimate of the time required to complete a job, such as 13 days. Would the authority negotiate for less time or would it accept the utility's estimate? If a utility wished to avoid paying a fine, would the obvious approach not be for it to double or treble its estimate of the time that the work would take? That would mean that it would never be caught exceeding the estimate because it would be remarkably stupid to set a limited time in which to complete the job, and then be fined.

In the regulations, there does not appear to be a means of appeal in extenuating circumstances. A gas company may be working on a particular road and an emergency may occur which would require people to be pulled off that job to attend to it. Would the gas company be able to go to the highway authority and explain that it was dealing with an emergency, which was the reasonable and sensible reason for the job overrunning? We should not pass laws that are unreasonable, so how would that situation be resolved?

How does one define what constitutes a single job or multiple jobs? Often on a road, there are several banks of traffic lights being worked on or several holes in the road. That especially occurs if a firm is working on cabling. Would the fine of £100 or £2,000 relate to each bank of traffic lights or to the whole length of the road? Would there be arguments between contractors and the Highways Agency about how many jobs were being undertaken?

Regulation 4 provides an exemption for ``minor works''. What is the definition of ``minor works''? I examined the code of practice under the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991—although it was dated June 1992 and may have been superseded—and I could not find such a definition. Will the Minister share his definition with the Committee to clarify the exemptions?

The only works covered by the regulations involve breaking up the street. Companies that replace barriers in the middle of highways or roads cause much disruption. If a section of a motorway were closed for a considerable time because a company was slow in replacing barriers, such work would be exempted from the regulations. Although it would be sensible to exempt pole testing or work on lamps from the regulations, there may be works that do not require the digging up of the highway, which it would be appropriate to include under the regulations.

The regulations include a scale of fines that apply to road category types 1, 2, 3 and 4. Will the Minister give us his definition of such types, so that we can be sure of the traffic that such roads must carry, and explain why the differential scale has been set and whether £2,000 is the most appropriate fine for roads of category types 3 and 4? The New Roads and Street Works Act 1991 did not categorise all roads. Has the categorisation of all roads occurred, or will categorisation have to be completed before the fines are introduced?

I have asked several interesting questions and I hope that the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions officials—who are no doubt so heavily overworked that it explains why they were late today—will be able to assist the Minister with inspiration to answer them. If the questions are answered, it means that we have a good and robust scheme that will improve matters for the road user. However, if there are doubts, legal action and arguments may undermine the effectiveness of a scheme that all of us, in principle, would like to work.

4.44 pm


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