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

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Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I join hon. Members in saying how delighted I am to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton.

I was fascinated by the contribution made by the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms). As he rightly said, he has some interesting questions and we look forward to hearing equally interesting responses from the Minister. However, I should like to ask some further questions, and members of the Committee must decide whether they are interesting.

I welcome the new regulations and, if there were a Division on them, I would certainly support the Government. The regulations would ensure an improvement in the conditions for those who use our roads. Many feel that those conditions are worsened by the large number of occasions on which our roads are dug up. A common perception exists that one utility may dig up the road, only for another utility to dig up the same stretch of road a few days or weeks later. I hope that, as a result of the regulations and the amendments made to the 1991 Act in the Transport Act 2000, utility companies not only work more speedily to carry out their work on the roads but, equally important, co-ordinate more effectively with each other to ensure that far fewer disruptions occur on our roads.

If we are to estimate whether we have been successful as a result of the regulations, we need a clear database from which to start those judgments and a baseline against which we can judge the success or otherwise of the regulations. I understand that some difficulty has arisen in that regard. The Street Works Advisory Committee was first established in 1987 and it investigated the workings of the 1991 Act. By 1996—some years ago, I admit—it produced a final report, in which it made some things clear. The report stated:

    ``However, this improvement''—

in terms of the operation of the system—

    ``has not translated into noticeably better conditions on the streets, except with regard to signing and guarding of works.''

The problem appears to be that the Department keeps little or no record of the types of incidents to which we refer. Several parliamentary questions were asked on that issue which showed that, until recently, no central collection of data had been created. A Library note prepared in the past two days states:

    ``The Department does not appear to have very much information about the working of the Act. A series of parliamentary questions to the Minister on 6 April 1998 on the monitoring of roadworks, sanctions against those in breech of the 12-month rule and co-ordination procedures, were all met with the reply that the information was not held centrally.''

Since that time, some attempts have been made to change the recording procedures. The Minister and Committee may be aware that an attempt at a centralised computer system was deemed not to have been successful and was dropped. A new electronic reporting system was introduced. Will the Minister tell the Committee about the position in regard to the central collection of information about road works caused by the utilities and others who have cause to dig up our roads?

Another problem is caused by the fact that it is not only the utilities that dig up the roads. Utility companies estimate that they are responsible for only 50 per cent. of holes that are deliberately dug in roads and blockages of parts of roads, yet they alone will be affected by the section 74 regulations.

Every hon. Member who has visited the front entrance of our new building, Portcullis House, will be aware that one of the lanes of the road outside the building has been blocked for a long while. That is not due to the work of a utility company: it is due to the building works. The highway authorities are also responsible for some of the digging up of our roads, yet only the utility companies are covered by the regulations. Are there plans to take remedial action against other organisations to try to persuade them to speed up their work so that they can play their part in freeing up our roads?

The Minister said that he is aware that a huge threat hangs over the utility companies, as the Government are prepared to introduce the tougher measure of lane charging if the section 74 regulations are not effective. The Government have been consistent on that. On 30 June 2000, in another place, Lord Whitty said:

    ``It will in effect be a penalty for inefficiency or for over-staying the time agreed with the highways authorities.''—[Official Report, House of Lords, 30 June 2000; Vol. 614, c. 1174.]

On 2 November, Lord Macdonald said:

    ``However, we fully recognise that it may be necessary to introduce further measures if the Section 74 arrangements do not result in a sufficient reduction of the present level of disruption.'' —[Official Report, House of Lords, 2 November 2000; Vol. 618, c. 1133.]

On 15 November, the Minister stated very clearly, in response to a question that I asked, that, if the regulations did not prove to be successful, he would be prepared to move very

    ``rapidly to the introduction of lane rental.''—[Official Report, 15 November 2000; Vol. 356, c. 1038.]

I welcome the fact that the Minister has made it clear again today that, if the regulations do not succeed in reducing the disruption on our roads, the Government will be prepared to introduce the alternative tougher sanctions regime of lane charging. Indeed, he has said that there is to be a pilot of that scheme in Middlesbrough.

How will the Minister judge whether he needs to introduce that tougher sanctions regime? I suggest that, as it seems that the Government do not have anything in the way of a baseline assessment, it will be difficult for them to judge whether the regulations have been successful. What are the Minister's thoughts on that conundrum? He may respond by saying that, as he has announced, Halcrow has been invited, as a firm of consultants, to monitor the success, or otherwise, of the regulations. What were the terms and conditions under which Halcrow was invited to take on the work? Was the job put out to tender? What was the specification of the contract?

The regulations are to be introduced in only two weeks' time. Does the Minister believe that Halcrow will be in a position by then to obtain sufficient information to provide the baseline against which he can make judgments on whether the section 74 regulations have been successful? I hope that the Minister will clearly explain how he will judge whether the regulations work, before he decides that they have not been sufficiently effective, which would justify the introduction of lane charging.

I touch on two further areas, the second of which is the more controversial. First, in response to my intervention, the Minister said that the consultation period had lasted for nine months. I am well aware that discussions of one sort or another have been taking place for that period, but the specific consultation has been on the draft code of practice. I understand that that has lasted not nine months, but just six weeks. Will the Minister confirm that, and explain why such a short period was allowed for consultation?

The utility companies, through their professional associations, were heavily involved in drawing up the draft code of practice and in developing the regulations. I welcome that sensible way of proceeding. However, after that relatively limited number of organisations had developed the draft code of practice, a large number of other bodies were involved in the consultation on it, and had only a short period in which to respond. The implication is that the bodies concerned have had very little time to get together to provide a unified electronic system for the capturing of data from around the country. Is the Minister confident that, despite the short time that has been available, the electronic data system for co-ordinating data on road disruption is satisfactory?

My final point relates directly to the regulations, although the Minister may say that it is outside his remit. In many parts of the country, real concern about street works has resulted from the road disruptions caused by the many cable companies digging up the road. Is the Minister aware that it is being said that the Department of Trade and Industry is handing out licences like confetti to many different cable companies, which will enable them to dig up the roads one after the other after the other? Although the regulations are important, they may be insufficient to prevent the wide disruption that the cable companies may cause.

One reason for that problem is the way in which the telecoms industry was privatised, with no single infrastructure established from which the different, competing companies could provide add-on services. In that bizarre system, which is not found elsewhere, every single new player in the field can build its own separate infrastructure. The Minister may not wish to comment on whether that strategy was sensible, but has he had discussions with his colleagues in the DTI about a way of limiting the number of licences given to different telecoms companies in any one area?

I hope that my questions have been as interesting as those of the hon. Member for Poole. I entirely support what the Government are doing, but I do not know whether the regulations will bring about the desired effect, any more than the Minister does. That is my main concern. How will the Minister judge whether the regulations will be successful, before he introduces the tougher possibility of lane rental?


Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North): Another ``finally''?

Mr. Foster: I think that it is my third ``finally''. I apologise for that, Mr. Benton.

The Minister said on 15 December 2000, as recorded in column 1038 of Hansard for that day, that regulations about lane rental were being drafted. Are those regulations either prepared or in the making; if so, when will he consult on them?

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