Draft Local Authorities (Contracting out of Highway Functions) (England) Order 2001 and Draft Street Works (Charges for Occupation of the Highway) (England) Regulations 2001

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Ms Keeble: I am delighted to wind up the debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Cran.

I am grateful to hon. Members for their contributions and detailed questions, which reflect the amount of interest in the issue. In particular, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate mentioned the real concerns of the public about the problems caused by congestion. The utilities companies have also asked questions about their position. I shall respond to as many questions as possible, but if I miss any out, I shall write to hon. Members afterwards.

I shall deal first with the issue of contracting out, mentioned by the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders). The contracting-out order is simple and technical, and is designed to cover any street works-related functions not covered by the Local Authorities (Contracting Out of Highway Functions) Order 1999. The street works-related powers that it covers have previously been approved by Parliament when the relevant regulations came before it. The order imposes no new responsibilities on utility companies, and it is entirely up to individual authorities as to whether they make use of the ability to contract out the relevant functions. It is very limited and is designed more as a catching-up measure than anything else.

We hope that the charging regulations, as with the separate powers for authorities to charge utilities whose works overrun, will provide an incentive for utilities to carry out their works more efficiently and speedily to ensure that any disruption that those works cause to road users of all kinds are kept to a minimum. In doing so, utilities will also reduce the charges that they will be liable to pay to the relevant highway authorities.

I reiterate that, in deciding whether lane rental should be rolled out across the rest of England—several hon. Members asked about that—we shall need to take a range of factors into account. Those factors will include not only the benefits that might flow to road users from such a national scheme, but the impact that such an action might have on utility companies, their work programmes and their customers. I am confident that launching pilot schemes to test the powers is the best way forward, precisely because of what hon. Members have said about getting the balance right and ensuring that the schemes will be carefully examined and scrutinised, on a limited basis. The monitoring information obtained through the pilots should enable us to consider all of those factors in detail. As I explained earlier, we shall

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want to consult widely with relevant players, such as the utilities highway authorities and utility regulators, in reaching a final decision.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire asked whether, under the third function listed in the contracting-out order, local authorities could keep the money. The answer is yes. He also asked some general questions about the purpose of the pilot schemes. I hope that I made it clear in my opening remarks that their aim is to deal with the congestion issue and the problems caused to members of the public by street works, which my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate outlined so clearly.

Mr. Moss: Will the Minister answer the fundamental question that burns at the back of my mind? If a utility company--an undertaker--has to dig up a road to renew cabling or to provide a service to some customers, how will charging it on a daily basis for that solve the problem of traffic congestion? If the job must be done and is being paid for, how will imposing extra charges affect the utility company's initial decision to dig up the road?

Ms Keeble: The hon. Gentleman will understand that the charging is designed to encourage the expeditious carrying out of such work. He raised the issue of the cost to the consumer. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate pointed out that, in such instances, there is more than one consumer, because road users have as much right as those who receive services to be regarded as consumers. The problems of congestion—particularly, but not only, in London—are of major importance to many people. That is why the Government took the initial decision to examine the issue of street works. The Conservative party's last manifesto contained a commitment to lane rentals, so the hon. Gentleman's party has given careful thought to how to deal with the problems of congestion and nuisance that street works cause to the public.

He mentioned the letter to the Secretary of State; neither I nor my officials have that letter, but it might have gone to the Department of Trade and Industry. I shall chase the matter up.

Mr. Moss: That is a bit of a slur on the company.

Ms Keeble: No, it is not. The utilities have several different areas of interest, so the letter may have gone to another Department. I shall find out where it has gone.

The hon. Gentleman described the basis for a judicial review of a decision that has not already been taken. Given that I am not a lawyer, I would be unwise to give a detailed response to those points. I have every confidence about the basis on which the Government would make a decision.

Peter Bottomley: Of course, the hon. Lady has to keep something secret. We will not tell the press about her openness about self-indulgent Departments. We appreciate her saying that the letter might have gone to a different Department and shall not tell anyone about

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it, just as we shall not tell anyone about the hon. Member for Ipswich reading the order that he was supposed to be approving.

How does charging for necessary days make a difference to the speed with which relatively minor works are done? I am not referring to major works, when roads are constructed over a period of a year and a half, as in those cases lane rental really works.

Ms Keeble: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point. As he must know from driving around built-up areas, the scale of the work undertaken is not always closely related to the length of time that it takes. I remind the hon. Gentleman about the cones hotline and other such schemes. The smallest repairs can cause the greatest aggravation. Given the number of problems caused to the travelling public and business community, we must consider different options for dealing with congestion.

I shall try to cover all the points, because I have pages and pages of responses to questions. I said that I would answer as many questions as possible, although I hope to do so without testing your patience, Mr. Cran.

There was a question about when we would get a report from Halcrow. I understand that we shall receive an interim report early in the new year. The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire and other hon. Members suggested that the measure imposed a stealth tax. As I said, congestion is a major cost for the business community, and the policy of lane rental was included in the Conservative party's election manifesto.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate has the advantage, in the context of the debate, of representing people in Camden, and she described clearly how the proposals would meet some of the concerns expressed by her constituents and the frustrations experienced by everyone, including the business community. She and other hon. Members referred to lane sharing, which would seem to be an obvious solution to many problems. However, it is not a solution that is always attractive to the utilities, because they are in competition with each other and it is not necessarily in their interests to dig a trench to the same front door at the same time. Competition to supply to homes and businesses does not necessarily make for lane sharing. The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire looks a bit askance, but if he raises the issue with the utilities, he will find that lane sharing does not have the same attraction for them as for some of us.

Mr. Moss: If there was puzzlement on my face, it was because I did not understand the Minister. There is competition not between the utilities that deliver the cables and pipelines that take electricity, gas and water into houses but between those who supply such commodities. However, supplies are delivered down the same wires and pipelines, and there is no competition between those who dig up the road.

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5.45 pm

Ms Keeble: If the hon. Gentleman discusses lane sharing with the utilities, he will find that they are not as enthusiastic about it as he and I would think. That is because they do not immediately want to share trenches with their direct competitors. The hon. Gentleman should raise the matter with the utilities.

I have dealt with contracting out, and I hope that the hon. Member for Torbay accepts that nothing new is involved. The relevant powers have been dealt with previously, and this is very much a tidying-up operation. We are talking only about a pilot scheme, and the House would have to debate rolling out the powers. My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich, whom I welcome to the Committee, should also recognise that. It will be important to examine how the pilot schemes work.

There have been queries about reinstatements. They are perhaps regarded as more serious than the original digging-up of the road and might, therefore, be subject to higher charges.

I was asked whether local authorities will charge themselves. The answer is no. On the question of emergency works, we are making provision for pilot schemes. It will be up to the authorities that express an interest—in this case, Camden and Middlesbrough—to provide details of how they will apply the charges. I set out in my opening speech some of the issues that we could expect them to take into account, such as whether work is carried out on a main road or residential road. They will also have to consider emergencies.

Mr. Moss: Will the Minister give way?

Ms Keeble: Let me deal first with the other point raised by the hon. Member for Torbay, who asked what was being done to improve local authority performance. Best practice guidance is being made available, and there is discussion—although no agreement as yet—about introducing best-value performance indicators so that we can closely examine the performance of local authorities.

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