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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Traffic Management Permit Scheme (England) Regulations 2007

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Hywel Williams
Bone, Mr. Peter (Wellingborough) (Con)
Cox, Mr. Geoffrey (Torridge and West Devon) (Con)
Dorries, Mrs. Nadine (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con)
Efford, Clive (Eltham) (Lab)
Flello, Mr. Robert (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab)
Goodwill, Mr. Robert (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con)
Kidney, Mr. David (Stafford) (Lab)
Kramer, Susan (Richmond Park) (LD)
Leech, Mr. John (Manchester, Withington) (LD)
Linton, Martin (Battersea) (Lab)
Mahmood, Mr. Khalid (Birmingham, Perry Barr) (Lab)
Spellar, Mr. John (Warley) (Lab)
Stewart, Ian (Eccles) (Lab)
Tami, Mark (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab)
Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton, South) (Lab)
Winterton, Ms Rosie (Minister of State, Department for Transport)
Wright, Jeremy (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con)
Annette Toft, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

First Delegated Legislation Committee

Monday 15 October 2007

[Hywel Williams in the Chair]

Draft Traffic Management Permit Scheme (England) Regulations 2007

4.30 pm
The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Ms Rosie Winterton): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Traffic Management Permit Scheme (England) Regulations 2007.
May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Williams, particularly after my experience discussing the Mental Health Bill in Committee?
The regulations introduce a new way for local authorities in England to manage works on the public highway. They have been subject to extensive consultation, resulting in a number of changes that have been incorporated in the draft before the Committee. As Members of Parliament, we all recognise the importance of our roads for businesses and communities, and for moving people and goods around towns and cities and throughout the country. It is a key part of the Government’s transport policy that roads should be managed effectively and efficiently so that we can make the best use of the road network for the benefit of all road users.
The responsibility for managing the network lies with highway authorities, but they need the tools with which to carry out that role. Permit schemes will provide highway authorities with a new and more powerful tool to help them to manage their roads. We are all familiar with works that create hold-ups on the network, whether those works are carried out by utility companies or the highway authorities themselves. I am sure that, as hard-working Members of Parliament, we have all heard complaints from our constituents about why roads are being dug up again and why it takes them so long to get to work or the shops. The regulations will make a welcome difference. While a lot of the works are necessary, we understand that how they are planned and co-ordinated—and carried out—can make a great difference to their impact. Permit schemes are designed to tackle such matters and to reduce the delay and congestion caused by works and other activities on the road network.
Permit schemes were introduced under part 3 of the Traffic Management Act 2004, which included a provision under section 39(4) that the first regulations about permit schemes shall
“not be made ... unless a draft of them has been laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament”,
and I hope that that is what we are here to do today.
The regulations provide a detailed framework for applications for permit schemes, their content and operation. Highway authorities may prepare and administer individual permit schemes only within that framework. Permit schemes prepared by local highway authorities will take effect only when they are approved by the Secretary of State following extensive local consultation. Schemes will apply to specified types of works in specified streets within specified areas. They must include both utility and highway authority works, but authorities can choose whether they cover all or only some of their roads, and all or some of their area.
Under a permit scheme, anyone wanting to carry out works in the street would need to obtain a permit before the relevant works began. A local authority may choose to attach conditions to a permit, such as specifying the days or times when work may or may not be done. For example, a local authority may say that it does not want work to be carried out during the rush hour. Local authorities will also be able to make exceptions to permit requirements in certain circumstances, which will obviously enable emergency works to be done promptly. Utility companies will pay a fee for a permit that will cover the cost of the administration relating to their works.
The draft regulations have been drawn up following extensive consultation, particularly with the permits working group, which consists of representatives from local authorities and utility companies. We have also issued statutory guidance and a code of practice, which I hope that my officials have helpfully brought along today for members of the Committee.
It will not be mandatory for highway authorities to run permit schemes, and we do not expect that they will all necessarily hope to do so. When an authority chooses to operate a scheme, and the Secretary of State approves it, the authority will be able to do so. There will also be a review of the scheme to ensure that it is working appropriately. For each permit scheme we will expect the benefits—a reduction of delays and disruption—to outweigh the costs.
The benefits of successful schemes would be substantial. Reduced occupation of the roads will help to reduce congestion and to maximise the efficiency of the existing highway network, thus improving reliability and making journeys more predictable and faster. That will make journeys easier to plan and reduce amounts of wasted and unproductive time. With reduced congestion comes reduced local pollution and benefits for air quality and other aspects of the environment. Public transport will be able to operate more reliably, to provide a better service and, potentially, to attract motorists to use them, thus further relieving congestion.
I hope that the regulations will be welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee. I think that they will play a part in reducing the many complaints that I am sure that all of us have about roads being dug up over and over again when our constituents cannot see a particular reason for that. The measure will help to co-ordinate the process, to reduce congestion on the roads and to improve the environment. For those reasons, I hope that the Committee will approve the regulations.
4.38 pm
Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): May I also say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Williams, and thank the Minister for laying out the implications of the scheme clearly and demonstrating the advantages that could come as a result?
In the 1960s, there were only three utilities: water, gas and electricity. Many people had to wait many months to get a telephone line. In fact, I have a letter relating to my own business, which was established in 1850, which stated that there were no telephone lines available and suggested applying in a year’s time—how things have changed. Given the recent expansion in cable TV and broadband, we now have 200 utility companies, all wanting to dig up our roads and footpaths from time to time. Of course, in recent months and years we have had big programmes to replace our Victorian gas and water mains, and, following droughts in Yorkshire and hosepipe bans in the south-east, an impetus to reduce leaks has built up.
According to the Automobile Association, at any one time there are 4 million dug holes in this country—that does not include potholes, which are not dug, but exist anyway. That leads to congestion and frustration, particularly when the same bit of road seems to be dug up repeatedly by local highway authorities or other utility providers. Roughly half those holes are dug by highway authorities.
Previous attempts by the Government to address that problem have not led to great improvements. Town halls were given the power to charge for overruns, but it has been alleged that utility companies deliberately overestimate the time required when giving notice of proposed works. The official Opposition welcome the regulations, given that they will lead to better co-ordination among the various bodies seeking to excavate.
Using a system of fees to pay for the administration is an improvement on the current system, under which the poor old hard-pressed council tax payer picks up the tab. As the Minister said, it will not be compulsory for the 115 local highways authorities to adopt a permit scheme. Some might stay with the existing notice scheme and use the electronic transmission of notices—ETON—system, which was, in theory at least, designed to streamline the process.
We are told that the system will be revenue-neutral. However, a report for Kent highway services that was produced on 9 January said that the income from the system in Kent will amount to about £2 million a year. The non-refundable cost of managing the council’s own works will be £850,000. Given that that makes up about 70,000 notices a year, or about 40 per cent. of the total, it seems that, for Kent at least, the revenue-neutral claim will be correct.
I have one or two questions for the Minister. My first relates to emergency work. I note that there is provision for emergency work in the regulations and that anyone excavating the road as an emergency—Centrica, for example, in the event of someone saying that they can smell gas—must give notice electronically within two hours of that work commencing. However, I can envisage a number of practical problems. For example, large areas in my constituency of Scarborough and Whitby do not have a mobile phone signal. Have the Government looked at the practicalities of having to give notice in areas in which there is no signal, or at 2 am on Boxing day when no one is in the office to receive the electronic communication? When such circumstances arise, I hope that local authorities will not prosecute too severely people who do not meet this strict two-hour rule.
I am pleased that the maximum time for major and programmed works has been reduced from six months to three. Although there is provision for emergency work, does the Minister accept that the regulations, which might require up to three months’ notice, could delay connecting businesses to telecoms and other services? Things have improved since privatisation. Will the Minister reassure me that people will not face increased connection delays because of the notice time that is required?
There are practical problems with utility providers sharing holes. For example, different depths might be required by electricity and water providers. It might not be safe or practical to put the services in the same hole. Although I hope that there will be a degree of piggy-backing, with different utility providers using the same hole or the same permit—
Mr. John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): But those problems are not unique to this country. How does the hon. Gentleman think that New York, which runs an extremely effective system on which this provision is based, deals with such a situation? Breaking up the surface always damages the road. Why do we want to see the surface broken up and people digging down several times a year? That means extra cost to the local authority and huge amounts of disruption. The problem is not unique and it is well catered for.
Mr. Goodwill: I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that whenever practical, it is desirable for utilities to share the same hole in the ground. What proportion of piggy-backing—if that is the right phrase—of a permit by another utility would the Minister consider to be necessary for this laudable aspect of the scheme to be deemed a success? Would 20 per cent., 5 per cent., or 50 per cent. be deemed successful? What figure have the Government in mind for this laudable improvement? It would help us to measure the success of the scheme if we knew the figure that the Government had in mind.
Highway authorities themselves are exempt from fees. Will the Minister confirm whether discounts for second promoters will still apply if the initial application is from a highway authority and thus free? How many of the 150 highways authorities does the Minister expect to participate in the scheme, and how realistic is it to expect some authorities to co-operate? I assume that the remainder that do not participate in the scheme will concentrate on enhancing the existing notice regime using the ETON computer system. What level of uptake during the six-month application window would the Minister regard as a success, and does she rule out extending the period if there are not enough applications?
The scheme is meant to be revenue-neutral, although the cost of processing the highway authorities’ own permits will be met, in the main, by utilities. Will the Minister review the fee structure in the light of experience, if it turns out that the fees collected more than compensate the local authority for costs? There is likely to be some variation in highway authorities’ success in implementing permits. Does the Department envisage a role in setting out best practice and encouraging communication among highway authorities that adopt the scheme?
I give the Minister and local authorities—many of which are, of course, under Conservative control—the best wishes of the official Opposition in implementing the scheme, which I hope will successfully meet the objectives that the Minister set out.
4.46 pm
Mr. Spellar: I shall be brief, if only out of deference to Committee colleagues and to the Committee Whip, who roped me in and would not welcome a particularly long speech.
This is a welcome development, albeit a trifle delayed. The relevance of that comment is in the title, which is to implement regulations under the legislation from 2004; it is undesirable that it has been delayed that long. It is absolutely right that there should be consultation, but when there clearly will be some differences of interest and opinion, they must be resolved. The Department has waited too long to implement the legislation. It does, however, come on a particularly pertinent day, when, if we are to believe Her Majesty’s Daily Telegraph, the Government are moving back from national road pricing. That is welcome news, as is the legislation. I believe that there is a link, as I think the Department has been diverted on to blue sky thinking on road pricing—the big idea, the grand project—rather than focusing on the nuts-and-bolts issues that will have a real impact on roads, on motorists and on freight traffic, which is so vital for our industry.
It is the same with hard-shoulder running, introduced on the M42 over a year ago. The Department is still dithering as to whether to implement it further, even though it has been an excellent success in the west midlands. It would be much better, if the Government are doing the sensible thing and moving back from national road-user charging, to focus on those issues where, as I indicated in my intervention, there is real life experience. We do not have to invent the wheel on hard-shoulder running. It has been working in Holland for the past 10 or 15 years. We do not have to reinvent the wheel with regard to the implementation of street works; there is an immensely successful system in New York city, which runs in real time, backed up with a tough permit system. Indeed, I think that the Minister mentioned not working during peak hours. In New York city, if the time limit is 4 o’clock, then as that time approaches, metal plates are being put down, workmen and materials are brought back, and the whole road is open rather than a section being coned off.
The Minister has made a particularly good start in the Department by actually doing something about wheel clamping, an issue that has been waiting around for about 15 years. Last week I urged the Home Office to follow her excellent example. I hope that the regulations are a further stage in that process, but I urge the Minister again, given the inordinate delay that has taken place, to ensure that, once they are through, implementation follows quickly. Everyone has known what will happen and we do not need any further delays at the behest of the utilities. The public are utterly frustrated with the way they have been behaving. I therefore urge the Minister to get a move on and wish her success.
4.50 pm
Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): I add my support to the proposals, which I hope will lead to much better co-ordination of work, much quicker repairs and less disruption for the general public. I would like to put four questions to the Minister.
First, in the consultation period, local authorities complained that the maximum charging level was too low. Is there any evidence from local authorities to suggest that some will not go ahead with the permit scheme based just on cost? Also in the consultation period, the number of work categories was simplified and programmed works merged with major works with a three-month notice period rather than a six-month period. Will the Minister say why she decided that it was necessary to reduce the notice period from six months to three months? Thirdly, in relation to the proposed fixed penalty notices, does the Minister feel that £500 for working without a permit or £120 for breaching a condition of a permit is high enough? Will that be enough of a disincentive to stop companies breaching the conditions of permits or not getting them in the first place?
Finally, what will happen when one local authority decides to go for a permit scheme and the local authority next door chooses not to do so? There is the potential for more problems and more delays in situations where a single road goes from a permit authority area to a non-permit authority area or where one side of a road is in one authority area and the other side is in another. May we have some reassurance that work will be done to ensure a smooth transition between work being carried out in an area covered by permits and work being carried out in an area not covered?
4.53 pm
Ian Stewart (Eccles) (Lab): My constituents and the residents of the city of Salford will welcome the regulations. Recently, I have been thinking of tabling a private Member’s Bill about these very issues. I am pleased to see that the Government have anticipated that and taken action.
The regulations will clearly address the chaos—some would say anarchy—that has been created where utility companies and others have been able to dig the roads up without reference to the highway authority’s planned roadworks. In many incidents, planned work has been carried out on arterial and major roads leading into our city and the less planned approach of the utility companies has exacerbated the problem. The regulations will go some way towards solving that problem.
As politicians, we all sometimes miss the obvious things. When our constituents open their front doors, what they are interested in is their visual environment. Piggy-backing will go some way towards stopping the plethora of roadworks and the patchwork quilt of small pieces of roadworks, particularly on the pavements. However, sometimes we forget that, because of the current nature of such work, a relatively small hole may be dug and covered with new tarmac. The problem is that dissimilar materials tend to lead to further problems. The small piece of tarmac that a utility company, for example, puts down may not sit well with the older tarmac. There tends to be a fraying of the older tarmac on the edge of the new tarmac. There is a plethora of different materials on our pavements these days which may be dangerous: for example, a paving slab, a piece of old tarmac and then a piece of new tarmac—with the older tarmac fraying because the new tarmac is next to it. We do not pay attention to the visual impact on our constituents either.
Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that, because in-fill materials tend to settle against the existing material of the road or the pavement, potholes are created, which then get filled with water? In the winter the water freezes, further disrupting and breaking up the pavement and the road surface and exacerbating the problems.
Ian Stewart: My hon. Friend is correct. That is exactly the point that I am making.
Problems do not occur only at that level, important though it is; there is also a visual impact on our constituencies. In my city we have the oldest industrial roads in the world and they are a mess: there are obviously hold-ups, congestion and everything else, but they also are a mess to look at and unsightly.
Mr. Goodwill: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that new technology can be used to address this problem, whereby the road surface is heated and the repair and the existing carriageway or pavement can weld together? I recently had a demonstration in my part of the world, and I hope that the Minister will look at that as a way of addressing this particular problem.
Ian Stewart: The official Opposition spokesman anticipates my final point. It is important to realise that the onus should be on the organisation that is digging the holes. We all want the facilities that they provide, but it strikes me that many of my constituents think that there is an optimum area—a minimum area—that should be covered. So instead of several little holes being filled in with dissimilar materials, if there is a stretch of pavement it should all be done at once. What militates against that, and actually what militates against the pertinent point made by the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby, is that utility companies and other companies do not want to go to that expense. My constituents would like to see highway authorities having more powers to address the issue that he raised. If the Government were to come forward with such suggestions, I would be fully supportive.
4.58 pm
Ms Winterton: I thank all members of the Committee for their genuine welcome of the regulations. I thank in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles, who vividly illustrated the problems created for his constituents, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South, who talked rightly about the effects of different types of tarmac and the impact on the visual environment. I hope that under some permit schemes it may be possible for a local authority to take such issues into account. I certainly hope that our review of the scheme, which I will discuss later, will also address those issues. I will go through some of the points that the review will raise, but it will be important to look at what difference the scheme makes to the visual environment.
I pay special tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley. It is always difficult to live up to his reputation in the Department, but I know that when he was there, he was keen to move these matters forward. I take his point that once the regulations are passed, it is important to move on with implementing them. I reassure my right hon. Friend that we are trying to work with local authorities that are interested in implementing a permit scheme so that we can see what works well, find out what barriers they are up against, and work through those with them. I also suggest that he should not believe everything that he reads in The Daily Telegraph [Interruption.] Tempting though that might be.
There is a slight misunderstanding. As my right hon. Friend knows, the draft Local Transport Bill covered local road pricing schemes and never touched on national ones.
Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab) rose—
Ms Winterton: Perhaps I should give way to my hon. Friend from the Transport Committee.
Clive Efford: I share the Minister’s support for the measure. However, local authorities have expressed concern about the use of emergency powers to dig up roads to circumvent existing regulations that co-ordinate the digging up of our main roads. Will the Minister elaborate on those concerns and comment on how far the legislation will go towards closing down that loophole, which has been abused by many utilities that designate everything that they do as an emergency? Such action would nullify the effects of this laudable measure.
Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend is right to mention the issue raised by the local authorities. However, these regulations have a great deal of support in the London area and Transport for London is keen to ensure that they are implemented. We must find the right balance between that issue and one raised by the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby. We must enable local authorities to ensure that emergency work can be carried out when necessary, although that should not be used as an excuse to dig up the road and say that there was an emergency.
A breach of the permit system not only leads to a £5,000 fine, but is a criminal offence. That addresses a point made by the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington: is that amount high enough to deter people from undertaking work and ignoring a permit scheme? There would have to be wilful ignoring of the scheme. The company could be taken to court, it could be fined £5,000, and it would also have to cover legal costs. My instinct is that it would not be good for a company’s reputation if it were to constantly ignore the scheme and try to get round it.
Mr. Goodwill: I am sure, as the Minister says, that the situation would be obvious. If water is running down the road or gas is leaking, that is an emergency. However, if a telecommunications line was cut off to a company that needed it to continue in business, would that be an emergency? If the cable for a street was off and people could not watch “Coronation Street”, would that be an emergency? There are grey areas.
Ms Winterton: “Coronation Street” is indeed wonderful, but I am not sure that being unable to watch it would count as an emergency. I do not think that it is for the Committee to decide every single instance of what counts as an emergency; we might find ourselves in some trouble down the line if we did.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley said, there are examples from other countries. A lot of effort has been put into creating a code of practice. We shall co-operate with local authorities that are interested to ensure that the schemes are effective, and approval will depend on the Secretary of State’s view that the relevant scheme will work. It is true, however, that the schemes amount to a new way of working. We want to ensure that benefits are realised, which is why the first proposed permit schemes will be reviewed after a year. The review will evaluate the performance of permit schemes against the current baseline and compare that performance against that of highway authorities that do not operate such a scheme. It will also compare information about the benefits of schemes that operate across different road categories. For instance, highway authorities might operate schemes only on traffic-sensitive roads, and those schemes will be compared with others that operate on all roads. The review will also look closely at the appropriateness of permit fees. I think that that answers some of the points made by the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington.
Mr. Flello: If the permit arrangements are as successful as we all hope, will the Minister consider changing the position so that authorities that are reluctant to adopt the schemes are required to do so in years to come?
I hope that, when we have the benefit of best practice, we can show that the schemes are good for our constituents—if so, they will obviously be good for the constituents of elected members of local authorities, too. I think that it is fairly unlikely that councillors will be standing up to argue that the schemes are a really bad idea because they quite like digging up the roads. It will be important to demonstrate that the schemes work and for the Department to work closely with local authorities to ensure that that happens.
Let me answer some of the specific points made by hon. Members. The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington mentioned the simplification of categories and the reduction of the notice period from six months to three months. The objective of the change was to simplify the number of categories so that the system could operate more easily with fewer options. However, the guidance in the code of practice is that utilities and authorities should register their planned works with the local authority as soon as they know about them—before the formal permit application is made.
We need to be clear that we are trying to change the culture so that people, particularly in the utilities and the highway authorities, are thinking ahead. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley said, it cannot be that difficult to know when maintenance is likely to be needed.
The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby said rightly that dealing with water leaks is important and has become even more so in the light of recent events. Utility companies should be thinking about planning a proper analysis of when action is likely to be needed and changing their mindset so that they are not thinking that they should just go straight in, give a bit of notice and not think too carefully about it. There will be many benefits for the utility companies because if there is banding together, surely there will be shared costs. This is a win-win situation. There can be a win for all our constituents, if they do not suffer from the disruption that we know can happen, and a win for the utility companies and the highway authorities, if they think carefully enough.
On adjacent authorities, traffic managers have a network management duty across their network, as well as in respect of adjacent networks. The permit scheme will clearly specify, for all to see, what streets and roads are within the scheme. That will produce an incentive for other authorities to join schemes, because it will be clear that one local authority is thinking carefully about the effect of disruption on the people living locally.
On the other point made by the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington, it is important to remember that although a fixed penalty notice may be issued, with a discount if it is paid quickly, there is also the option of people being taken to court. That will be a disincentive.
With regard to the points made by the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby, we have not set a target for numbers in respect of joint working. However, we would like to change the culture and we would like people to think that this is a good approach. Obviously, the more authorities that work together, the better for the people in an area. This is about co-ordination in forward planning.
The hon. Gentleman asked how many authorities we envisage will show an interest. Our feedback says that between six and eight local highway authorities will want to go forward. We will consider each application and each authority will have to justify the cost benefits. Again, we want to see best practice spread.
On the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South about authorities being required to run a permit scheme, we have to decide between what is central Government imposition and what is local decision making. There is a power in the 2004 Act and under the regulations for the Secretary of State to require local authorities to run a scheme, but only if that is appropriate. Perhaps that would be appropriate if the actions of one local authority were preventing lots of local authorities from having a scheme, or if it were clear that there were some enormous problems. It is for local authorities to decide whether they want to undertake a scheme.
Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I am trying to work out how appropriateness comes into this. If it is down to a local authority to decide, how could its decision affect other decisions, leading to the Government coming in and saying, “Oi, you’ve got to change.”? I cannot see how that would happen, or why.
Ms Winterton: The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington gave an example whereby if one area had a very good scheme that was working on one section of a road, but, over the boundary, another local authority was not running a scheme on that road, congestion would build up. That could be an occasion on which such a thing might be appropriate. As I have said, although there is a power, we feel very strongly that this is a matter that local authorities should decide for themselves. Perhaps that would be appropriate within local area agreements.
I hope that I have answered the questions that hon. Members have asked. I will certainly ensure that we look at all the questions, and will come back to right hon. and hon. Members if there is anything that we have left out. As I have said, I think that the regulations will be widely welcomed. The process has taken a lot of hard work. I pay tribute to my officials, who have done a lot of careful balancing between the needs of road users and the need for effective and well maintained infrastructure. I also want to put on record how thankful we all are for the contributions made by others during the consultation process. The regulations will help to bring about a new culture of working in partnership to achieve well managed streets and to reduce congestion. They provide a fair and effective framework for the operation of permit schemes, and I commend them to the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the Draft Traffic Management Permit Scheme (England) Regulations 2007.
Committee rose at seventeen minutes past Five o’clock.

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