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In 2001, the Department for Transport introduced powers for highway authorities to charge utility companies—they are usually known as section 74
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charges—when their works take longer than agreed. That has resulted in better estimates from utility companies of the duration of works, which in turn increases authorities’ ability to co-ordinate works and helps them to comply with their network management duty. The co-ordination code of practice, published by the DFT as statutory guidance in July 2007, stressed the importance of co-ordination for longer-term planned works anything up to five years away, but more usually two years away. That allows authorities and utility companies to adjust the timing of works so that utility works take place before a road is resurfaced by an authority, or so that road closures can be shared.

The 2004 Act placed a network management duty on local authorities, requiring them to do all that is reasonably practicable to manage the network effectively and keep traffic moving. That statutory duty reflects the importance placed on making best use of existing road space for the benefit of all road users. That strengthens the need for co-ordination of works, so that the same street does not have a series of works by different utility companies or the local authority over an extended period. Authorities and utility companies are encouraged to co-ordinate works where possible, so that they can share traffic management such as temporary traffic lights or one-way operations, even if the works are not in the same trench.

However, emergency repairs will always be needed for burst water or gas mains or to ensure that supply is restored to households and/or businesses. In Staffordshire, the highway authority has worked with utility companies and its own highways management team to co-ordinate works that, if carried out separately, would take many weeks. It is succeeding in reducing the time for which the highway is occupied. One example, on the A449, involved a gas main replacement and major resurfacing. If carried out as separate works they would have lasted 25 weeks. Instead, all work was completed in 12 weeks, with traffic management, temporary signals and one-way closure organised to maximise traffic flow.

Similarly, in London, Bishopsgate, a vital artery in the City, was closed for a weekend in March to allow a bridge for the East London line to be lowered into place. Transport for London used the opportunity to allow 10 different works promoters to carry out works at 25 separate sites in Bishopsgate. That removed any impact on weekday traffic that several separate works would have had.

Utility companies are required to make good or reinstate the highway after they have carried out works. When possible, they are encouraged to do that immediately after the works, which is known as first-time reinstatement. If that is not possible, due to inappropriate weather conditions for materials to set or the unavailability of specialist finishes, the utility company can make a temporary or interim reinstatement to allow the highway to be safely returned to use as quickly as possible. The permanent reinstatement is then carried out within six months. Local authorities can carry out inspections to ensure that sites are safely laid out and that the reinstatement is to the appropriate standard immediately after it has been done and is still adequate two years later, just before the guarantee expires.

Utility companies are investing in developing innovative ways of working to minimise the amount of excavation that needs to take place or reduce the duration of works when they are maintaining or upgrading apparatus. For
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instance, gas and water companies are placing plastic pipes inside existing pipes rather than excavating a trench along the entire length of the mains. The most important thing is that the reinstatement is suitable for the level of traffic using the road and that deterioration does not take place. The 2004 Act provides new powers for local authorities to require those undertaking the work, such as utility companies, to resurface a street following works, but those powers have not yet been commenced. Their implementation will require new affirmative regulations and a statutory code of practice on how the powers can be exercised. Discussion with key stakeholders, especially local authorities and utility companies, will need to focus on the circumstance in which the powers could be exercised by local authorities; the extent of resurfacing that would be appropriate; whether a requirement to resurface a particular street could be placed on several utility companies; whether a financial payment could be made instead of resurfacing, and how that would be calculated; and when and how local authorities contribute to the cost of resurfacing by a utility company.

Careful consideration needs to be given to how the provisions in the 2004 Act should be delivered to ensure that there are no unintended consequences that adversely impact on either the travelling public or the customers of the utility companies. We prioritised our 2004 Act programme after we listened carefully to the views of our key stakeholders, who are, as I have mentioned, the local authorities, utility companies and their contractors. We keep in close touch with our stakeholders’ opinions and if they have a strong view that we need to change our priorities, we will take that into account.

Implementation of the 2004 Act with regard to works on the highway by utility companies initially focused on the changes to the powers to co-ordinate and direct when works may or may not take place, and those regulations came into force in April. The next phases
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are revising the inspections regime—to ensure the safety of works and the quality of reinstatement—the safety code of practice and how records of buried assets are recorded and shared with others. Those important areas of work have been given priority, as inspections will help to ensure that works are carried out to the appropriate standard and improved records of buried assets will ensure that excavations are carried out in the right place and that the risk of damage to other people’s assets is minimised, along with the risk to workers and the general public.

Department for Transport officials continue to work closely with the local authorities, utility companies and others to ensure that the regulations and statutory guidance are proportionate and practical. However, we need always to remember that regulations alone are not enough. As the examples I cited from Staffordshire and London show, early communication can deliver benefits for authorities, industry and more importantly, the general public—the customer common to both authorities and utilities—through reduced congestion and the reliable provision of water, energy and communication.

Good relations at both a working level, to deal with day-to-day issues, and, more strategically, to share good practice, are essential for the effective management of street works by all parties. The Department must work—and will continue to do so—with the whole sector to help build the right relationships for an effective, pragmatic approach to co-ordinating these essential works that will deliver the outcome needed: the minimised impact of works on road users and the provision of reliable essential services.

I conclude by again congratulating my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I know that he, like his Labour colleagues, will continue to ensure that the new arrangements work as well as possible, and I commend him on that as well.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes to Eleven o’clock.

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