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That the Order of 20th October 2008 (Political Parties and Elections Bill (Programme)) be varied by the substitution in paragraph 2 (time for conclusion of proceedings in Public Bill Committee) for the words Thursday 13th November 2008 of the words Thursday 20th November 2008. [Chris Mole.]
That, at the sitting on Wednesday 29th October,
(a) notwithstanding paragraph (2)(c) of Standing Order No. 14 (Arrangement of public business) opposition business may be proceeded with, for three hours or until Four oclock, whichever is the later, and shall then lapse if not previously disposed of; and
(b) notwithstanding Standing Order No. 20 (Time for taking private business) the Private Business set down by the Chairman of Ways and Means shall be entered upon at the conclusion of opposition business (whether before, at or after Four oclock), and may then be proceeded with, though opposed, for three hours, after which the Speaker shall interrupt the business. [Chris Mole.]
That the Stamp Duty Land Tax (Variation of Part 4 of the Finance Act 2003) Regulations 2008 (S.I., 2008, No. 2338), dated 2nd September 2008, a copy of which was laid before this House on 2nd September, be approved. [Chris Mole.]
That Mr Nicholas Brown be discharged from the Administration Committee and Mr Thomas McAvoy be added. [Rosemary McKenna, on behalf of the Committee of Selection].
Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): I am delighted to have secured tonights Adjournment debate, in which I will highlight the negative effect of repeated digging by utility companies on the structure of our roads and highways. It has become a particular problem in my constituency, becoming increasingly costly to both the local authorities covering the Denton and Reddish areaTameside and Stockport metropolitan borough councils.
Indeed, so bad is the situation that Tameside council has launched a campaign, restore the roads, which the boroughs three MPs are supporting to highlight the problem. Tameside council believes that our roads should be dug up only once in any year by the utility companiesvery different from the 8,000 separate diggings that the borough had to suffer last year alone from a potential 106 different firms, all in a borough with only 442 miles of road! This continued work can lead to an unsightly patchwork effect of repair, which affects my constituents everyday movements and quality of life. Basically, the law needs to be changed to allow for the full cost of restoration of the whole length of road by the body that carries out any digging, and for full ownership restoration of the roads with absolute permission being required from the council to carry out any digging.
Over recent years, the growth in the economy, the introduction of competition into utility services and increasing customer demand for essential services have brought with them increasing numbers of excavations in the streets in order to supply these services. That increase brings with it the increased potential for conflict between the utility contractors, which have the statutory rights to use the streets for provision of essential services, the highway authorities, and others who maintain them, and those who use the streets for transport purposes.
To address those issues, the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991or NRASWA, as the engineers like to call itprovided a legislative framework for street and highway works, and it is supported by regulations and codes of practice. A number of measures have already been introduced to encourage improvements in the planning and execution of street works, and to help to minimise disruption, notably a scheme under section 74 of the Act to charge undertakers who fail to complete works within the time scales agreed between them and the highway authority. Additionally, the Act lays down standards for backfilling and reinstatements, as well as guarantee periods for maintenance.
Part 4 of the Traffic Management Act 2004 was introduced in April 2008 and has supplemented NRASWA, giving highway authorities more power to control and direct promoters of works effectively, with the aim of minimising disruption. Under the 2004 Act, there is provision to operate a permit scheme. Permits apply equally to activities carried out by highway authorities and utility companies, although highway authorities will not pay a fee. A permit will be required for every opening in the highway, and that will replace the system of noticing. Discussions are taking place on the way forward for operating a common permit scheme across the county of Greater Manchester.
The Act also has provisions for issuing fixed penalty notices for failure to provide notices or for giving inadequate or incorrect information on notices. Utility organisations are required by legislation to notify the authority of programmed works with realistic start and end dates, determined by type of work to be undertaken. Records of utility openings are kept, which monitor the time works are ongoing. Again, regular and systematic checking takes place to ensure that the works do not overrun the specific notice times permitted.
The implementation of section 74 of NRASWA enables works to be better planned and provides better information for street authorities to plan their inspections and co-ordinate works. Those notices contain the actual start date, the agreed duration and the completion date of the works. The council can charge utilities that overrun the agreed completion date, in accordance with laid out rules. However, with more and more excavations taking place, roads and footways are still becoming a patchwork of unsightly scars on the highway, leading to increased complaints and poor public perception of local authority management of its assets.
David Heyes (Ashton-under-Lyne) (Lab): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning Oldham road in my constituency, as it is possibly the worst example in relation to the general point he is making. He would agree that Tameside is an excellent local authorityprobably the bestbut it is constantly frustrated in its endeavours to maintain the roads and footways to a high standard. Oldham road is a good example of that. In preparation for it becoming a quality bus corridor, the road surface was reconstructed. Within weeks, the utilities arrived and the pneumatic drills got to work. In next to no time, that splendid new road was pockmarked and potholed because of inadequate reinstatement.
Does my hon. Friend agree that that causes long-term and expensive damage, and that it is time that local authorities such as ours were given powers to re-charge utilities with the true cost of putting right this long-term damage to the integrity of our roads?
Andrew Gwynne: I agree absolutely. My hon. Friend makes an excellent case about Oldham road in his constituency. Similarly, just 12 months ago, extensive repavingmuch of it modular block paving and carriageway resurfacingtook place in Denton town centre in my constituency. A year on, it is set to be ripped up by utility companies seeking to do extensive and major maintenance work, which they say was not programmed when the council contacted them 12 months ago.
Looking at some of the poor reinstatements across the borough, it is clear that long-term damage is caused by the street works, as my hon. Friend rightly says. The number of reinstatements in the highway is increasingly affecting both the appearance and quality of road and footpath surfaces in Tameside. Moreover, the premature maintenance required as a result of the structural and environmental damage caused by the deterioration of reinstatements is placing additional pressure on already stretched highway maintenance budgets. There is increasing public dissatisfaction with what must be described as a deteriorating situation.
Ms Celia Barlow (Hove) (Lab): I am glad that my hon. Friend has secured a debate that is timely for, in particular, constituents of mine who have battled home through the roadworks of Brighton and Hove. I have been courteously kept informed by the utility companies, and have become involved in discussions with Tory-led Brighton and Hove city council. However, over the past yearwhile the current council has been in officethe roadworks have multiplied, and there are few issues about which I have received more complaints.
The roadworks increase pollution and decrease the quality of life, and I am concerned about their effect on the economy of Brighton and Hove. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need joined-up thinking from the councils before they give permission for otherwise worthy roadworks?
Andrew Gwynne: I entirely agree. In the case of Oldham road and Denton town centre, the council approached the utility companies, which said that they had no such works planned for the area. They recently ripped them up. However, I take my hon. Friends point about Brighton and Hove council, and I am sure that that is common practice throughout the country.
Proper reinstatement will restore the actual area that has been excavated, but I think it is commonly accepted that there is consequential structural damage to adjacent areas. There is also some evidence to suggest that reinstated areas display more surface defects, which in turn will allow further deterioration of the structure of the highway itself. Current legislation does not deal with the damage caused to the integrity of the highway. As things stand, the utility companies continually get away with it. They have to pay only for the part of the road that they dig up, and the council must pay for the rest to rectify the damage. That is very unfair to council tax payers and the community at large. Not only are many of the utility diggers ripping off the community with the excessive charges; they are ripping up our roads, and the community must pay again for a full restoration.
Recent research undertaken by Tameside council has shown that between 20 and 30 per cent. of inspected jobs are found to be defective in regard to health and safety, guarding issues, reinstatements causing danger, and non-adherence to specifications determined by road category. All those defects are monitored by the councils streetworks inspectors, and defects are corrected. Recent core samplingchecks on specifications after expiry of guarantee periodshas also indicated that 30 per cent. of jobs failed inspection, and would require utility organisations to return and rectify the problems. Those works will cause additional disruption to road users. Furthermore, the opening of trenches will have a significant negative public impact on Tameside as an attractive borough, and will cause disruption and congestion to all users of the network.
The Minister will be interested to know that Tameside council has also calculated how much the work is costing it. Following detailed examination of Tameside's road network and condition, figures have been determined, subject to final verification. It has been calculated that the current gross replacement cost for carriageways and footways is £620 million. Tameside has established through its transport asset management plan that the improvement investmentthat is, backlog maintenancerequired is in the region of £27 million for carriageways and £10 million for footways, a total of £37 million.
It could be argued that if it is accepted that utility organisations reduce the life of the road by 30 per cent. as a direct result of utility openings, the local tax payer is contributing some £11 million as a direct result of the long-term damage caused to the local highway network by utility openings. That is £11 million diverted from schools, libraries and services for pensioners in my constituency.
It is high time that the utilities footed their fair share of the bill. I do not believe that they pay the real costs of the damage that they cause; in my view, they pay only part of it. However, there are a number of remedies that we could suggest to the Minister.
Utility openings create disruption and are difficult to manage and control, despite legislation and authority efforts to co-ordinate works. They contribute significantly to the expectedreducedlife of the highway and ultimately affect life-cycle plans for planned repairs, creating disproportionate demand on reactive spend levels, which is ultimately borne by the local taxpayer. It is impossible for local authorities to inspect all the openings at each stage and, as I have said, about 30 per cent. of inspections reveal defects and/or issues to be resolved. Recharges, made in line with legislation, allow costs to be recovered, but do not cover disruption or address long-term damage issues, so we need a change in the law.
There are a number of possible remedies, such as full width reinstatements under law. The Secretary of State has powers under section 78 of NRASWA to enable there to be a financial contribution by the utility organisations for the effects of long-term damage. However, this section of the Act has never been enacted. To help alleviate these issues, Tameside council has already tried to persuade companies to undertake full width construction at some locations. Although it has been successful in part, it has no powers to enforce this, and can only use a persuasive approach to achieve the objective. This should now be a legal requirement that makes the utility companies fully reinstate the roads. I believe it is now time for that part of NRASWA to be enacted, making the utility companies pay the full price for their works. I urge the Minister to consider enabling this part of the legislation.
This situation needs to be addressed. It cannot be fair for local people to be so regularly inconvenienced by road works, and for Stockport, Tameside and many other local authorities to have to pay for the structural damage caused by the utility companies. The utility companies made millions of pounds last year and can well afford to put right all the damage they have caused to local roads and highways. The estimated £11 million price tag should not be borne by the local council tax payers as it takes money away from valuable services. We urgently need a change in the law to make utility companies legally responsible for the very real damage they cause to our roads.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) on securing this debate and on providing us with an opportunity to discuss works by utility companies in the highway. I know that he has written to my predecessors on this matter and I admire his tenacity in ensuring that it remains under close scrutiny.
Roads are the vital arteries of modern life. Not only do they allow roads users to travel to their destinations or deliver goods or services, they allow utility companies to provide the energy, water and telecommunications that we have come to expect as part of modern life. We expect them to be available all day, every day. This level of availability99.9 per cent. of the timeis not easy to achieve. It requires utility companies to maintain, replace or upgrade their infrastructure to ensure this reliability and continuity of supply, as well as to repair and restore supply when it fails. This is not easy.
One penalty of being the first industrialised nation is that our infrastructure is older than that of most other countries. In London, up to 50 per cent. of the water mains are more than 100 years old and, astonishingly, 30 per cent. are more than 150 years old. London is not unique; many other parts of the country, such as Greater Manchester, have water and sewer mains that are more than 100 years old. This is not only the case for water. Gas mains are frequently more than 100 years old, and the majority are more than 50 years old. The majority of electricity mains cables are more than 50 years old, as are some telephone cables.
Given the age of much of this apparatus, it needs to be replaced, or, given growing demand, upgraded. This is not always easy on our busy modern roads. The New Roads and Street Works Act 1991or NRASWA, as my hon. Friend catchily calls itrequires local authorities to co-ordinate all works on the highway to minimise the inconvenience to road users, promote safety and protect the street. Statutory undertakers such as utility companies have to co-operate with local authorities and each other. The 1991 Act also requires utilities to notify works, carry them out safely and reinstate them properly so that the highway can be returned to use.
In April this year, we brought in stronger powers for local authorities to co-ordinate works. They include longer periods of notice for major works to allow better co-ordination, clearer powers on directing when works can or cannot take place and longer restrictions on works by utility companies following roadworksup to five years following major reconstructions and up to three years following resurfacing. All other substantial roadworks may be followed by a 12-month restriction. The powers also include the fact that a highway authority may now impose a restriction following major works by a utility company, restricting further work on the street by any utility company for up to 12 months. Fixed penalties for certain offences, mainly the failure to provide timely and accurate notices, have been available to authorities since May as an alternative to prosecution.
The Traffic Management Act 2004 also provided new powers for authorities to operate a permit scheme that allows them to control works in the highway proactively, subject to the approval of the Secretary of State. Permit schemes apply to the highway authoritys own works as well as to those by utility companies. There have already been consultations on two such schemes, the London common permit scheme and the Kent permit scheme. The Department received applications for the London common scheme from 14 London boroughs and Transport for London in July. No decisions have been made on the current applications.
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