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House of Lords

Wednesday, 9th February 2000.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Lichfield.

Roadworks: Delays and Disruption

Lord Blaker asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What steps they are taking to reduce the delays, expense and inconvenience caused to the public and businesses by roadworks.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991 and in Northern Ireland the Street Works (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 balance utilities' needs against those of road users and the public. In October, shortly before the Question from the Earl of Kinnoull on a similar issue, my department consulted on incentives to minimise disruption and improve street works co-ordination in England. It ended on 31st January, and we are now considering the options in the light of the responses and further discussion with the highways authorities and utilities. Any solution will need to be workable and minimise bureaucracy.

Lord Blaker: My Lords, is the Minister aware that road works problems are getting worse by the month and are a major cause of frustration and rage on the part of drivers and their passengers, including at the present time Members of both Houses of Parliament? Am I right in understanding that the consultation to which the Minister refers, which provides for the introduction of lane rental and penalties for the late completion of works, excludes works done by the highways agencies and by the local authorities, including the London boroughs? If that is right, is that not a mistake? When do the Government expect to announce their decision?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, yes, the noble Lord is correct. However, he has put it in a strange conceptual fashion because the highways agencies own the roads and they must maintain and repair them. That is their statutory responsibility. The consultation was mainly with utility and cable companies, which dig up the roads, about their responsibility to the local authorities and highways agencies, the sanctions they might bring to speed up the traffic, and more optimised methods of reducing disturbance to traffic when digging up the road. They are not simple repair and maintenance jobs.

Viscount Tenby: My Lords, will the Minister agree that part of the problem is that contractors bidding for the possession of roads build in a generous time

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allowance which permits them to engage in other work during the course of the contract--perhaps on something a little more glamorous or profitable for them? What does he propose to do about that?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, in traffic sensitive areas, there are tight regulations as regards the notice that utilities must give to the transport authority and the time that they take. The problem is that there are a number of different demands, not all of which are co-ordinated, and the sanction on extending the period is not sufficient. Two broad ways of how we might deal with that were suggested in the consultation paper to which I referred.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend will agree that many roadworks are carried out during the day, not overnight or at weekends when traffic is much lighter. I hope that consultation is taking place on that. However, is it not true that one of the reasons why local authorities cannot undertake work at weekends and at night is the huge extra cost? Are the Government prepared to help meet those costs so that local authorities as well as private contractors can work at weekends and overnight?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, as regards the Highways Agency, we have developed a more structured approach to maintenance and there is now a greater use of night working by the agency on inter-urban roads. There are different problems in urban areas, where one must take account of the noise made during the night in residential districts. That applies even more so to the trenches which utilities are required to dig, given the heavy machinery which they frequently use. Therefore, most local authorities take the view that utilities' trenches in urban areas should not be worked on at night.

Lord Renton: My Lords, the most important factor is that the lives of men working on the road should be protected. However, is the Minister aware that highway contractors often seal off long stretches of road days before work begins, which seriously and unnecessarily slows down the traffic? Could not something be done about that without incurring risks to the road workers?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Renton, is right to say that the safety of workers on the road is paramount and that they need to be protected. That is particularly important when they are working at night and visibility is limited. I believe that the noble Lord will find that stretches of motorways and trunk roads that need to be coned off in preparation for roadworks are nowadays much shorter. Furthermore, the speed with which roadworks are completed using the newest techniques on the inter-urban network is now far greater. The Highways Agency is determined to improve on that even more. However, the situation is much more complicated in urban areas.

Lord Jacobs: My Lords, does the Minister agree that a certain lack of common sense is shown when road

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repairs are carried out? For example, in the extremely important thoroughfare between Wigmore Street and Oxford Street, which usually provides five lanes in one direction, three lanes are blocked off by roadworks, one lane remains open for legal parking and a single lane is left for traffic.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, traffic management for such areas is for the most part a matter for the local borough council, which acts on advice from the police. Clearly, better and worse examples exist of how matters are managed. Nevertheless, I believe that the techniques of roadworking are improving, given the amount of traffic that has to be dealt with. As regards better co-ordination among contractors, noble Lords may not believe this, but one of the best examples of co-ordination is taking place in Parliament Square where no less than five groups are using the trench at the same time. That is a good example of how this sort of activity should be organised.

Lord Elton: My Lords, will the noble Lord encourage those involved in digging holes in the road to declare, on a readable notice, who has dug the hole, why it has been dug and when it will be filled up again?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, as regards the immediate local area, that is a matter for Westminster City Council. Furthermore, requirements differ across the boroughs. However, the point I wish to make is that if there were better co-operation between the utilities and the cable companies, the number of times that a road needs to be dug up would be reduced.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy: My Lords, can the Minister tell the House why the roadworks in Parliament Square could not have been carried out during the summer holidays?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, a sequence of cabling is being carried out in Westminster involving the cable companies and the electricity provider. Westminster City Council has the responsibility of scheduling the work. As regards access to Parliament, on Monday last my noble friend the Chief Whip indicated the period of notice that was given of those works.

Specialist Schools

2.45 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What are the criteria on which specialist schools are established.

Lord Bach: My Lords, the criteria against which specialist schools are designated are published in four guidance documents, each dealing with one category of specialism: technology; languages; sport and the arts. These set out the considerations taken into account when deciding to designate a school as a

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specialist school. The criteria address, first, sponsorship; secondly, school and community development plans; and thirdly, location.

Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that helpful Answer. First, does he accept that the success of specialist schools depends on having available high quality specialist teachers? For the foreseeable future, there will be a shortage of such teachers in some areas. Secondly, does my noble friend agree that frequently parents submit more applications than there are places in such schools? How will children be selected or chosen from that list?

Lord Bach: My Lords, one of the ways in which specialist schools can contribute is by giving a clear message that the country values teachers in those specialisms. Of course, we should and do put those teachers high on our agenda and make it clear that their jobs are very important indeed. I can tell my noble friend that specialist schools do not have as much trouble recruiting teachers as they might have. The crucial point is that specialist schools will take on the responsibility for training other teachers. That is how we shall raise standards and, in turn, entice more able people into the profession.

In response to my noble friend's question about parents, as he indicated, it is a fact that specialist schools are popular. By September of this year, 86 per cent of local authorities will have a specialist school. At the moment, there does not appear to be any great difficulty for parents who wish to secure places for their children.

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