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Session 2006 - 07
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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Street Works (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2007



The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Martyn Jones
Cairns, David (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland)
Cox, Mr. Geoffrey (Torridge and West Devon) (Con)
Crabb, Mr. Stephen (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con)
David, Mr. Wayne (Caerphilly) (Lab)
Dorries, Mrs. Nadine (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con)
Duddridge, James (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con)
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester) (Lab)
Kaufman, Sir Gerald (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab)
Kidney, Mr. David (Stafford) (Lab)
Lancaster, Mr. Mark (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con)
McDonnell, Dr. Alasdair (Belfast, South) (SDLP)
Naysmith, Dr. Doug (Bristol, North-West) (Lab/Co-op)
Norris, Dan (Wansdyke) (Lab)
Reid, Mr. Alan (Argyll and Bute) (LD)
Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
Ruddock, Joan (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab)
Strang, Dr. Gavin (Edinburgh, East) (Lab)
Thornberry, Emily (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab)
Wills, Mr. Michael (North Swindon) (Lab)
Wilson, Sammy (East Antrim) (DUP)
Wright, David (Telford) (Lab)
Glenn McKee, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(2):
Durkan, Mark (Foyle) (SDLP)

Third Delegated Legislation Committee

Tuesday 9 January 2007

[Mr. Martyn Jones in the Chair]

Draft Street Works (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2007

4.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (David Cairns): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Street Works (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2007.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Jones; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. Before moving on to the substance of the order, a draft of which was laid before the House on 4 December 2006, I shall deal with an issue that often comes up on such occasions—the question of process. It is my and the Government’s sincere hope that this is the beginning of the last batch of Orders in Council that deal with what should be devolved matters for Northern Ireland to be considered by such a Committee.
We now have a clear timetable leading up to the elections in a few weeks’ time and the restoration ofthe Assembly on 26 March, after which all such issues will properly and rightly pass to elected Ministers inthe Assembly. The order sets out a framework of regulation-making powers—powers to be exercisednot by me, but by Ministers in the devolved Administration. We are not doing anything today that cannot be undone in a few weeks’ time by Ministers of the Executive, and nothing in the order will fetter them in future. I accept that there remains continued unease that we are still making Orders in Council for devolved business, but this one is relatively uncontroversial, although important, and its format is such that itwill enable local Executive Ministers to exercise functions and powers after the Assembly is restored on 26 March.
I shall briefly describe the purpose of the order. It introduces stronger powers for the management and control of streetworks, with the aim of minimising disruption and reducing traffic congestion. I am sure that all members of the Committee will agree that streetworks can be a highly frustrating source of disruption for road users, although not the only one, and that they contribute to traffic congestion. Indeed, in 2001, my Department was criticised by the Public Accounts Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which believed that significant disruption to traffic had resulted from a failure to introduce the streetworks legislation in Northern Ireland that then applied in England and Wales.
The order introduces provisions largely in line with those already applicable in England and Wales by the enactment of parts 3 and 4 of the Traffic Management Act 2004.
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): The Minister says that the legislation is largely in line with that for England and Wales. Does he accept that, although local authorities, highway authorities and so on in England and Wales are covered by the legislation, they are the main groups who disrupt road traffic through roadworks? That that is not the case under the order. In fact, the order covers only a small group of those who will be digging up our roads.
David Cairns: There is a difference, which is why I did not say that the order mirrored the provisions for England and Wales or was identical to them. The key difference is that local authorities in Northern Ireland have no road functions. Such things are done centrally through my Department. Part of the review of public administration is about devolving responsibility for local roads—the vast majority of the network—to local authorities, and we are working through that process with the political parties by using the strategic leadership board that I chair. The board will consider exactly what functions should be transferred to the seven new councils when they come to power in 2009. It would not be appropriate for us to mirror exactly the provisions for England and Wales, because roads are not devolved to local authorities in Northern Ireland. They will have such powers, however, but we will deal with that when we transfer the functions.
The hon. Gentleman was right to suggest that the Roads Service is not covered by the legislation. That is why I said earlier that work done by the utilities contributes to congestion but is not entirely responsible for it. Given the legislative framework that we have in Northern Ireland, separate pieces of legislation govern what we call streetworks, which we are discussing today, and what are referred to as roadworks, which are carried out by the Roads Service. We considered the possibility of combining in an order an approach that would satisfy what the hon. Gentleman set out to do, but we were advised that that would not have been legislatively possible, or that it would have been more difficult or complex because the pieces of legislation are separate. That is not to say that we rule out the possibility of introducing reforms to the way in which roadworks are carried out, but that would have to be done by a different piece of legislation.
James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): The Minister will be aware that he has received a letter from Peter Dixon of Phoenix Natural Gas. The Minister has stated that the order is much to do with congestion, but that letter and the supporting notes—I believe that they have been sent to all members of the Committee—state that utility roadworks account for only a maximum 5 per cent. of total congestion in Northern Ireland. If so, will the order do anything significant to sort road congestion?
David Cairns: It will. We are not saying that we will reduce the amount of works that utilities have to carry out. They are statutory undertakers that have to carry out works, and they need to be allowed access to do so. We are talking about managing and co-ordinating that better, so that the same road is not continually dug up over and again and so that the same traffic routes are not continually disrupted. We are not saying that we will at a stroke do away with congestion and disruption, but asking whether we can streamline it, manage it and do so in a way that is much more co-ordinated.
I agree with some of Mr. Dixon’s concerns, although not with all of them—he cites a figure for the cost to the industry that is not evidenced elsewhere in his letter. Ultimately, the codes of practice, the regulations, the costs and the permit scheme are not included in the order, but the powers to make them happen are. It will be for the Executive Ministers in the Assembly to make them happen in consultation with Peter Dixon, the National Joint Utilities Group, those utilities that are not in the group and other road users. The Assembly and its Ministers will decide on the charging scheme, how the permit scheme will work and so on. I do not think that we need to get too worked up about that. There is a long way to go, and we can have a common-sense approach.
Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): In their statement, the private utility firms express concern that the publicly owned Water Service will not be included in the order. Are they correct to say that and, if so, will the Minister explain why he has not included the publicly owned utilities in the same order as the privately owned ones?
David Cairns: No, they are wrong; the Water Service will be included. That is one of the issues in Peter Dixon’s letter to which I could have taken exception. The Water Service will be dealt with in exactly the same way as the private utilities.
Among the provisions in the order is the power to introduce a scheme to require utilities to obtain permits to carry out streetworks, to which conditions may be attached. The permit could, for example, ensure that the time estimated as being needed to do the work was allocated sensibly, so that roads were not blocked for weeks on end without anything actually happening. It could also require that only one lane of a road would be dealt with at a time. In other words, a permit could set out terms and conditions to ensure that the work is managed with the minimum of disruption.
We propose, too, that street authorities will have direction-making powers to enable them to direct utilities about the dates, as well as the times, at which they may carry out works. For example, it could be specified that work could be done at the weekends as well as at times of day when it would cause less disruption, rather than during the rush hour.
Other new measures include a requirement for utilities, in certain circumstances, to resurface entire lane widths or to contribute to costs in carrying out such work, which would avoid the patchwork-quilt effect that blights so many of our roads; a restriction on certain streetworks for a prescribed period following the completion of substantial streetworks, so that the same road is not dug up over and again; increases in the maximum fines for certain offences and the creation of a range of fixed penalty offences; and a charging mechanism by which utilities would pay for the duration of their occupation of a road and for overrunning any agreed period of occupation.
Sammy Wilson: Can the Minister outline the circumstances in which full reinstatement will be required and the circumstances in which refusals will be given to reopen a road after it has been resurfaced? For example, if repairs were needed to a telephone cable and the road had just been resurfaced, would a permit be denied?
David Cairns: On the first point, as I said a moment or two ago, if a road is continually being dug up—we have all seen roads where roadworks have resulted in an unsightly patchwork effect—we could require the resurfacing of a lane. The utility that happened to dig up the road last would not necessarily get clobbered with the costs of resurfacing the entire lane. We would have to consider cost-sharing schemes, and that is precisely the sort of thing that would be dealt with in the code of practice and the pricing schemes that will be set out by regulation following the order.
Obviously, emergency works—for example, in relation to gas leaks—must be undertaken, and we must take a common-sense approach to them. It would be unnecessarily bureaucratic and cumbersome to state that each set of roadworks on every road in Northern Ireland will need a permit. I do not think that work being done to a wee country lane in Fermanagh would be dealt with in anything like the same way as works being done on a major arterial route such as the Malone road in Belfast. Not every roadwork would need a permit. We are talking about routine maintenance-type work that can and should be planned in advance and that can be co-ordinated centrally, so that the Department, in this instance, which already has a centralised database and register, can keep a co-ordinating eye on what is going on.
By and large, the public support and welcome these proposals, although, as has been mentioned, utility companies are not supportive of all the proposed measures—perhaps unsurprisingly—but I stress that we recognise that the utilities are essential for the economic and social well-being of Northern Ireland. Of course, they have a duty to undertake repairs to and carry out maintenance on the pipes, cables and so on that we all need for the services that we enjoy.
We want to provide a better system for regulating the way in which roads are dug up and the number of times that that can happen, and the order enables us to do that. Our officials and the utility companies already work well together in co-ordinating streetworks. We can build on that, as well as building on the experience of England and Wales—which are a bit ahead of Northern Ireland in relation to the making of the necessary regulations—so that we can put in a system that is fair not only to the people who use the services and the utility companies, but to road users, who often face a great deal of disruption.
I am confident that the proposed new powers for the better management, control and co-ordination of streetworks will help to minimise disruption and reduce congestion on the roads and streets of Northern Ireland.
4.43 pm
We have all been frustrated on many occasions at roads being dug up continually and, as it sometimes seems, unnecessarily, so any move that we can make towards reducing the disruption must be welcome. We have all been frustrated sitting in traffic queues, which again we may feel are unnecessary.
It is right that, if utilities have the statutory powers that allow them to dig up the road, they at least have the responsibility to make as little disruption as possible.
I do not intend to speak for very long, but I have one or two concerns about the order. I have read about it and consulted the National Joint Utilities Group and others who, it is fair to say, take the view that, yes, this legislation in some ways matches what has happened in England, but it also seems to take the worst and the best bits of that. Indeed, the measure includes some aspects that have been tried and failed in this country and takes them across the Irish sea to be applied in Northern Ireland.
One issue of concern is that in Scotland, for example, there is a roadworks commissioner and there are traffic managers. However, that will apparently not be the case in Northern Ireland—I think I am correct in that. The Minister shakes his head, so perhaps my information is wrong. If I am wrong, that will be of comfort to people who are concerned about the issue. Perhaps the Minister will correct me, but it has been suggested that there will not be the type of supervision that some people believe is necessary.
Another concern is that, although the order is being sold as something that will reduce congestion, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East has said, it probably relates to only a small part of the congestion that will be caused by the utilities. How much progress will we actually make in respect of congestion? Has congestion been measured? Can we measure it now and can we measure it in five years’ time? In other words, can we judge the progress that we make and the effectiveness of such legislation?
The consultation process is a dangerous issue to raise, as the Government always say that there has been a very full consultation, but it is felt by the relevant parties that possibly their representations have not been fully listened to—particularly in relation to the knock-on costs and the possible benefits that may come from the order. The Minister half referred to an article—I do not know whether or not it was accurate—in The Irish News on 21 December claiming that the new rules regarding utility companies
“could cost Northern Ireland’s gas and electricity customers up to £15 million a year”,
because of the knock-on costs and the utilities passing on the costs to customers. That is of particular concern in Northern Ireland, where people pay more for their utilities than in Great Britain. I do not know whether that figure is accurate, but it is what has been reported, and perhaps the Minister will address that point.
The cost to the utilities is a big issue. As already suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim, the Minister has responded to the question of multi-trenching. However, exactly when the whole road should be resurfaced is of concern. Who judges how much should be disrupted to make someone liable to resurface the whole road? That is one of the concerns. Do the people who will do the resurfacing come under the scope of the order? It has been claimed that they do not, yet that could hold up the whole job. Is clarification of that not something that is unfortunately missing from the order?
On the principle of overruns, as has been claimed, companies in England can be fined up to £2,000 at present. However, that rarely happens because they are able to set themselves long periods in which to complete work and exploit loopholes to overrun the deadlines. In other words, knowing that a job will take one week, they can agree that it should take three weeks, and if it only takes two weeks, everyone is happy. However, the legislation has not dealt with that issue.
It is also claimed that utilities exploit emergency powers; they can claim something is an emergency when perhaps it is not, so they do not necessarily need to give the proper notice, as they would if they had gone through the normal procedure.
I understand what the Government are trying to achieve, and I hope that the measure will be successful, but I should like the Minister to address those points when he winds up.
4.50 pm
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Thank you, Mr. Jones. I appreciate your generosity in allowing me to contribute. My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South was listed to serve on the Committee—I had been listed previously—but other business prevents him from being here.
The Minister emphasised in his opening remarks the need to address the problems of congestion, which has caused frustration and comment. He referred in particular to views that were expressed in the Assembly in 2001 about the impact of streetworks. He obviously was not in Northern Ireland at that time or in the preceding years and may not appreciate that many of those problems were caused by the great deal of work that had been done in Belfast in respect of the natural gas supply. A great deal of work had also been done by Cabletel and others. It was a period when there was much more disruption because of significant strategic supply work in parts of the street network of Belfast, not the road network of Northern Ireland, although obviously there would have been issues in some other towns as well.
The conditions that might have given rise to anecdotal impressions that bedlam was being caused by all sorts of utility companies opening up roads and doing nothing, or taking a very long time to do the work, is not causing problems to the same degree at present. The Government often tell the rest of us that our anecdotal impressions and the anecdotal repute of a problem do not always mean that it is as bad as it is stated to be by public representatives. Equally, the Government often have to consider whether the remedies demanded by public representatives will in fact be as good, or as effective, as they claim they will be. Here we have an example of the Government purporting to legislate to deal with a problem that I believe they have exaggerated, and the solution certainly will not be as effective as they are suggesting.
The point is that the road congestion and difficulties in Northern Ireland—those things that cause pressure on traffic patterns—have little to do with the work of roads utilities, although of course anything that improves the management and planning of such work can help. I hope that the Minister will be able in winding up to address whether current planning and management arrangements cannot be modified to be better, without all the ancillary and associated costs and regulations that the order brings. He said that the order would operate very much on a common-sense basis, that nothing would absolutely have to be done and that there would be flexibility, good sense and good judgment. Why do we need this regulatory regime simply to have a bit more common sense than there is at present?
The Minister referred to consultation, and the explanatory memorandum also refers to it, but the order includes amendments to existing legislation that were not mentioned in the consultation paper that came out in June 2005. They never surfaced in respect of the problem that we are discussing. Let us consider some of the amendments: article 4, on the street works register; article 5, on the duty to inspect records; article 12, on the qualifications of supervisors and operatives; article 14, on inspection fees following failure to reinstate; article 15, on notices requiring remedial works relating to reinstatements; article 17, on guidance about street authority inspections; and article 20, on fees for inspections. None of those were addressed in the original consultation exercise, but all of them have significant resource implications. Some of them involve costs to the utilities; some involve costs to the public purse. There are, of course, other issues that have resource implications, such as the guidance on street authority inspections under article 17, but some of those issues were mentioned in the consultation document.
Given that the Government have positive expectations about the prospects for a return to devolution, why rush the order through? There is no big demand to ensure that it beats the bar. I should imagine that local, devolved Ministers who approach such problems would believe that they, alongside the new local authorities when they come into being, could agree perhaps more of a common-sense arrangement and work with the utility companies and others to find a better planned approach and a better managed situation.
Devolved Ministers might also consider the option of translating lessons from this island to Northern Ireland, one of which might be the way the matter is approached in Scotland, where different arrangements apply. Scotland has not gone the way of the Traffic Management Act 2004. Something like a roadworks commissioner, with the appropriate directions and duties that would attach to such a post, and a roadworks register might commend themselves much better to Northern Ireland than the 2004 Act does for England, in that it deals with problems in busy cities, where numerous utility companies all compete in the same sector. In Northern Ireland, there are not all sorts of different companies competing with each other in different towns, streets and markets. Our utility markets are not crowded, as they are in cities in England.
What is the urgency? What is the rush? If the whole point of the framework is to leave things to the discretion and choice of a future local Executive and Assembly, why push the order through now?
4.57 pm
Mr. Reid: I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Jones, and wish you and the rest of the Committee a happy new year. We have all suffered from the traffic congestion caused by repeated roadworks, and we have also seen roads deteriorate because of badly done reinstatement work by utility companies. In the light of that, I welcome the order’s objectives, which are to achieve the more efficient management of streetworks carried out by the utility companies and to minimise disruption. I hope that the order will result a more co-ordinated and cohesive approach to the management of streetworks in Northern Ireland, and that the increased powers of the Department will result in a reduction to the disruption to road users.
The utility companies have, quite naturally, expressed some concerns about the bill that they face. I should like to raise one of two of those concerns, so that the Minister can respond. The Department’s explanatory memorandum estimates that the cost to the utilities in Northern Ireland will be approximately £7 million annually. In their statement, the utilities estimate the cost to be about £15 million annually. Did the utility companies demonstrate in their submission to the Minister why they believed that the costs were more than double the Department’s estimate? If the Minister has had a chance to look at what the utility companies estimated, perhaps he could say why he believes that his Department’s estimate is correct and theirs is not. The utility companies have also said that the order will make it difficult to extend the natural gas network into new areas. Perhaps the Minister can respond to that concern.
We all hope that this is one of the last orders that we shall discuss, that the Assembly can get up and running and that, as the Minister has said, the final decisions about how to implement the order will be taken locally. However, can the Minister give an assurance that, if the Government are still in charge when the order has to be implemented, the cost passed on to utility companies would simply be that incurred by the public sector under the order and that that would not be seen as a method of raising revenue?
5 pm
Sammy Wilson: First, I reiterate what other hon. Members have said: I hope that this will be one of the last pieces of such legislation to go through the House. It is extraordinary that Northern Ireland legislation is not subject to amendment but is simply accepted or rejected regardless of how bad or good, or how weak or strong, the orders may be. Indeed, as the debates go on we sometimes realise that certain things could be better considered, but we do not have the opportunity to do so. I hope that, before the end of the Session, the politicians of Northern Ireland will have the opportunity properly to debate legislation and to ensure that it is carried through in a way that allows for amendment.
Of course many people who drive in Northern Ireland will want to see less disruption on the roads, will want to see the roads better maintained and will want to see those who dig them up being held responsible for reinstating them and putting them back in a proper condition. However, I am not sure that the order will result in some of the aims outlined by the Minister being achieved. Significantly, the first thing that he said was that it would minimise disruption and congestion on roads in Northern Ireland. As he said, the Department for Regional Development’s Roads Service is not covered by the order, but the vast majority of work to roads in Northern Ireland is carried out by the Roads Service, and many hold-ups and much congestion and disruption results from that kind of work. That particular objective will not be achieved.
I know that the research into the problem may not be fully endorsed by everyone, but it is reckoned that the utility companies’ roadworks are the cause of about5 per cent. of road congestion. The order, as the Minister pointed out, will not stop utilities digging up roads; they will still be permitted to do so. If only 5 per cent. of the congestion is down to utilities and much of their work is to go on as before, how can the Minister say that the purpose of the legislation is to minimise disruption and reduce congestion? It attacks a only small part of the problem.
The second point on congestion is that full lane reinstatement—I shall return to the subject in a moment—will allow people two or three goes at roadworks. One cannot reinstate a road immediately after the work is done. One has to allow time first for filling in and for subsidence, and then dig up the surface again before full lane reinstatement. I can see the purpose of that provision, although I am not sure how it will work, but it is likely to lead to a doubling of the amount of work, because the trench will be filled in after the works but only later will the surface be fully reinstated.
I find that a strange argument from the Minister’s point of view, in so far as I should have thought that the easy way to do that would be to use the information that the Minister has told us today that the Department has at its disposal. The Minister said that the Department holds a centrally controlled database and register of the works that have to be done, who has to do them and so on. Surely the proper use of that database and register is the way to minimise the opening and reopening of roads and to ensure that, if those who have opened them—surely that should be on the register—have not properly reinstated the road, they are made to do so.
Why all the legislation is required in light of the information that the Department holds, I am not so sure. I serve on a local council, and I know that we have such arguments with Roads Service officials all the time. I suspect that, even with the register available, there is still a lax supervision of much of the work that is required. Unless the information available is used properly, all we will be doing is charging people for permits and lane rentals, while they still open and reopen roads as they do at present. I want the Minister to address that point. Why, if we have the information about who wants to open roads, who has opened them, when they have been opened and what work has been done, cannot that information be used to minimise the disruption and reduce the number of road openings?
The hon. Member for Foyle has outlined my third point—I shall not go through all the articles. Legislation in respect of Northern Ireland, as a number of hon. Members have pointed out, goes through the House in a less than satisfactory way. One would therefore have expected that, where consultation could take place outside the premises of Parliament before the legislation was drafted, that consultation should at least have been thorough.
As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, a quarter of the order—seven of the 28 articles—was never in the original consultation document that had to be responded to but was made up of amendments that were introduced afterwards and were therefore not subject to any consultation. Not only do we have legislation that cannot be amended and that goes through in an hour and a half, or whatever, but a substantial part of that legislation was never presented in the original consultation document. All the items that have been put on the record by the hon. Gentleman have cost implications for either the Department or the industry. I should have thought that we could at least have had proper public consultation on them before the legislation was finally brought for discussion.
My other point is simply on the matter of the costs. The Minister has been ambiguous about a number of issues, and I always get a bit nervous when any ambiguity is associated with anything that the Roads Service is identified with. I do not take the same view that many Roads Service decisions will ensure good sense and good judgment. I see some of the officials smiling, but on many occasions I have found the Roads Service to be fairly inflexible. Once it is given powers, not too much flexibility is shown.
We do not have a clear picture of the cost of the order to the Department. There will be employment implications for the Department. Some people have suggested that as many as 30 additional staff could be employed. There will be a cost to the public utility industry. The industry has put the cost at £15 million; the Minister has put it at £7 million. Whether or not that includes the reinstatement of lanes and so on is debatable. We do not know the costs. I should have thought that, with such an order, we would have had some idea.
Mark Durkan: On the 30 additional posts in the Department that are identified in the explanatory memorandum and the other costs that the hon. Gentleman has referred to, has he been able to establish whether those 30 posts also represent the subsequent costs that will be borne by the local authorities when they take over responsibility for roads, or will those costs remain with the Department? There are also unknown local authority costs, which have yet to be factored in for the future as well.
Sammy Wilson: The hon. Gentleman makes a very interesting point, because there is a great fear that, when some of these matters are devolved to local authorities, additional costs will fall on the ratepayers, so the public will be required to pay not only for the posts by paying more for the services given by utilities, but for them a second time through an increase in the district rate. We are not clear about any of that. The Minister did not clear up the point during his initial comments; perhaps he can clear it up at the end of the debate.
I take some hope from what the Minister has said, in that the full lane reinstatement power will not be used on every occasion. Nevertheless, many people will fear that, once that power has been given to the Department, the cost of resurfacing roads will move away from the already overstrained roads maintenance budget to the public in another way—through an insistence that public utilities carry out the work. Of course, public utilities get their money from the public because they sell services to them. The fear is that the power will be increasingly used as a way to maintain roads and to shift the responsibility from the Roads Service budget.
The Minister said that not every road would require a permit to be opened. He said that full lane reinstatement would be required only in certain circumstances. However, once the power exists, we cannot ensure that flexibility or good sense will always be applied. I again stress to the Minister that those assurances are insufficient, without specifying the kind of grounds on which roads could be opened without permits and the cases in which reinstatement would not be necessary. Unless we have greater clarity on that, the impetus, I believe, will simply be placed on using the powers and on doing so fairly inflexibly. That has been my experience of the Roads Service in Northern Ireland. I fear that, having been granted, the powers will be used fairly inflexibly, leading to delay sometimes in the provision of public services and to an increase in the costs.
I do not know—I will listen to what the Minister says—whether we will want to divide the Committee on the order. As I said at the outset, the aims of the legislation would have general acceptance in Northern Ireland, but when we look at the specifics of it, we see that there is no guarantee that those aims will be met. Indeed, there are great fears in the industry that this is simply another imposition on a very small group of people who are involved in digging up roads in Northern Ireland, while most of the main culprits are let off scot-free.
5.15 pm
David Cairns: This debate has been useful, and some entirely appropriate questions have been asked; I shall try to get through them in the time available.
The hon. Member for Tewkesbury and others mentioned the difference between our approach, which is modelled on the English and Welsh approach, and the Scottish approach. The differences are there onthe ground. In Scotland, a private company has responsibility for maintaining the trunk road network, while local authorities have responsibility for local roads, and there is a need for national oversight. That is not required in Northern Ireland, because there is only one roads Department, which carries out a lot of the functions and effectively fulfils the role of independent traffic manager that I mentioned. Obviously, as we devolve some of the powers by transferring functions to local councils, those councils will take on more of that responsibility.
The starting point in Scotland is, however, different from that in Northern Ireland, and it remains to be seen which model will be more successful. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that, in five years’ time, we may be able to measure that, although, as everyone has said, the works that we are discussing do not represent the majority of reasons why there is disruption. They might be difficult to disaggregate. We have chosen a different model because the starting point is different.
The hon. Member for East Antrim mentioned the figures of £15 million and £7 million. Nothing in the order has of itself a cost implication to which we can put a price tag. The order gives the ability to make regulations to set up permit schemes, impose charging and do all the relevant things. The price tag will be attached at that stage—once the regulations are made and once we have seen what will and will not require a permit and what the charges for overruns and all the rest of it will be. That is all the subject of future consultation with the industry and others. Unless we take the necessary powers, we will not be able to introduce the regulations.
I do not apologise for the fact that I do not have an absolute figure, because the work has not been done to get the regulations that would enable us to have it. I am not saying that the figure of £15 million is wrong. We have estimated that the figure will be £7 million, but the real figure will become apparent as the regulations are devised. It will then be for local Ministers to decide whether to proceed on that basis.
Mark Durkan: Will the Minister at least help to clarify the point made by some people—that the£7 million or £7.2 million figure given by the Government deals only with the cost implications that arise from the permits and overruns, but not with any of the other associated costs? The industry says that its figure of £15 million takes in other costs, but does not include some costs, including that of computerisation. The industry says that it has counted in more, but not everything, and that the Government have counted in purely road permits and overruns. Is that true?
David Cairns: Yes, it is true that our figure refers to the permit scheme, but the industry does not know what the additional costs will be because the cost regime has not been set. It has given a guestimate; I have not said that the industry figure is wrong, but that it is not possible at this stage to be definitive about it.
Mark Durkan: The Government do not know either.
David Cairns: The hon. Gentleman is acting as if he had discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun or made some other great discovery. The very first thing that I said was that we were taking a series of regulation-making powers. Most of this will be done through the affirmative procedure in the Assembly, so it will be for local Ministers and the Assembly to come up with the scheme of charges and costs and to decide whether to proceed. I said that in my opening sentence; no great discovery has been made.
The remarks made by the hon. Member for Foyle were slightly surprising in their negativity and hostility. They took me by surprise because they were in sharp contrast to the official response of his party, which was much more positive and welcomed the measures that we have proposed. If the hon. Gentleman has not seen it, I shall happily give him a copy of a letter from his party’s regional development spokesman, Margaret Ritchie. She regularly corresponds with me and frequently holds me to account for all sorts of things—only last night she was having another go at me. The hon. Gentleman said that the Government were exaggerating the congestion problem. However, his party’s spokesperson wrote:
“The disturbance and congestion such works often cause is a readily identifiable source of antagonism amongst citizens and a decrease in this would be beneficial to all road users... We welcome the inclusion in the Order of a permit scheme as a method of managing street works... Also to be welcomed are the proposed increases in the powers of the Department in respect of restricting when and where street works can be carried out.”
The SDLP welcomes the power to require, where justified, larger areas of the road to be resurfaced at a cost to the utilities. Not every member of the Committee has a copy of the letter, so I shall not quote all of it, but I am willing to give the hon. Gentleman a copy of it, because I thought that his party welcomed the order.
Mark Durkan: There is no disagreement between me and our regional development spokesperson on the issue. She responded in good faith to consultation proposals, but she has also made it clear subsequently that, on further reflection and after contact with others, she does not accept that the Government’s proposals are necessarily the best answer to the problem. I did not say that there was no problem; I simply said that devolved Ministers approaching the issue might come up with something closer to the Scottish approach than what the Minister is legislating for, and that view is shared by Margaret Ritchie.
David Cairns: All I have is what Margaret Ritchie said in her official response to the consultation. The hon. Gentleman said that the Government exaggerated the problem, but his spokesman said that it is “readily identifiable”, although perhaps after consultation with him she has realised that it is not readily identifiable. [Interruption.] I am not going to give way—nobody else has the letter, so it would be pointless.
James Duddridge: What is the date on that letter?
David Cairns: It is dated 11 July 2006—Margaret Ritchie was obviously hard at work in the week of12 July, responding to the policy consultation.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute mentioned the gap between the utilities’ figure and the Department’s figure, which I have mentioned. He also asked whether the order would threaten the extension of the natural gas network into new areas. The answer is no—I do not think that it will. There is also the question of whether the charges will be passed on to the consumers. Utilities do not have to pass the charges on to the consumers if they do not want to—they are doing all right, making hefty profits.
Mr. Robertson: In the real world.
David Cairns: The hon. Gentleman may say that—I would welcome the utilities saying that they would not pass those costs on to consumers, but that is a commercial decision for them to make. Until we know the scale of the costs, it is perhaps futile to speculate too much, but the utilities do not have to pass the costs on to the consumers if they do not want to.
That brings me on to a point that the hon. Member for East Antrim and others made—I shall close on this point. I have never said that streetworks are responsible for the majority of congestion—they are not—but it is unfair to say that we are clobbering the utilities and doing nothing about the rest of the congestion problems. Some of the problems are caused by our massive strategic road investment programme, with the Westlink, in the north-west, where I hope the hon. Gentleman would agree we are planning to spend huge amounts of money on the road network. That will necessitate congestion, as always, which is one reason for this process.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have also taken measures in the Greater Belfast area to introduce park-and-ride schemes, which can reduce congestion, as well as dedicated bus lanes, which have been very successful. I opened one at Sprucefield before the summer, and it is now almost running at capacity. We are investing in buses and public transport. We are also addressing illegal parking, which causes congestion, and decriminalised parking enforcement has been successful. Stephen Nolan has referred to my private army of traffic wardens, but they are tackling a problem that leads to congestion. I accept that there are lots of reasons for congestion, and we are tackling a range of them, but some of the congestion has been brought about by the fact that we are investing in road programmes.
Sammy Wilson: Lest the Minister think that everyone is being totally negative, I should like to put on the record the fact that where the Roads Service has undertaken major strategic road schemes—the Westlink is a good example—a lot of work has gone into avoiding congestion. Most road users have accepted that building that into contracts has been very worth while and successful.
David Cairns: I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments. As I said in my opening remarks, the draft order introduces provisions for managing and controlling streetworks similar to those already in place in England and Wales. It is important that the street authorities in Northern Ireland have equally strong measures available to them to manage where, when and how often the streets can be dug up, to help to reduce traffic disruption and congestion. I therefore hope that the Committee will support the order.
Question put:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 12, Noes 1.
Division No. 1 ]
AYES
Cairns, David
David, Mr. Wayne
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester)
Kaufman, rh Sir Gerald
Kidney, Mr. David
Naysmith, Dr. Doug
Norris, Dan
Reid, Mr. Alan
Strang, rh Dr. Gavin
Thornberry, Emily
Wills, Mr. Michael
Wright, David
NOES
Wilson, Sammy
Question accordingly agreed to.
Resolved,
That the Committee has considered the considered the draft Street Works (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2007.
Committee rose at twenty-six minutes past Five o’clock.
 
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