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Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, so far as concerns our own economy, I believe that it is of interest that oil is far less important to UK industry in the year 2000 than it was in the 1970s. It is now mainly used for transport. In addition, energy intensity has fallen since the 1970s. Despite the significant rise in oil prices over the past year, that has resulted in a very modest increase--less than half of 1 per cent--in the RPI. I believe that it is also worth noting that on 6th and 7th March the price seemed to peak and we are now beginning to see it come down. Today, it stands at approximately 25 dollars per barrel. I believe that that indicates that the markets are probably anticipating that when OPEC countries meet on the 27th they will increase their production schedules. Therefore, either way, we are very far from a position where we need to intervene or to take regulatory action of the kind that I believe the noble Lord has in mind. I should add that it does not seem long since I answered a question at the Dispatch Box about what the DTI would do to help the oil industry to cope with very low prices.

Lord Elton: My Lords, surely the Government have taken a series of actions in relation to the rising price

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of oil, culminating in yesterday's action in the Budget. Diesel fuel costs over 50 per cent more in this country than it does in the Republic of Ireland. That causes considerable distortions of trade across the Border.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I believe that that is a separate, although rather interesting, question. Obviously, it relates to the tax issue. However, the tax increases which were announced yesterday are simply in line with the rate of inflation.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, as I do not have too many opportunities to congratulate the DTI, perhaps I may congratulate my noble friend on proposing to do nothing at all about the price of oil. Would he care to list, or perhaps place in the Library, those areas where the DTI has it in mind to interfere?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I believe that that is an ever-decreasing list of areas.


2.48 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will require all those whose operations have the effect of denying or partially denying use of the highway to normal traffic to exhibit at the site notices stating who they are, what is the purpose of the work they are undertaking and for how long it will continue.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, with a few minor exceptions, for roadworks carried out by utilities and telecommunications companies an on-site information board must name the responsible organisation and a contact telephone number. The board may also contain other information, such as a description of the works, the name of the contractor, and the expected completion date. A code of practice which covers that process is currently being revised.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lord for that Answer. The code of practice certainly needs revision. Is he aware that there is a growing impression that anyone with a mind to do so, and some shadow of an excuse, is free to go along, choose a piece of highway or street and occupy it; dig a hole in it at leisure; leave it for a while; go back to it and fill it in again? Do the Government not believe that the time has come--this is not a party point in any way--when it really would be appropriate for someone to reimpose a measure of control over what now appears to be total licence?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I accept that the impression gained by the noble Lord and many others is not a million miles away from the way that he described it. But that is not the reality. An undertaker's licence is

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required. I do not refer to "undertakers" in the sense that we all fear, but in the sense of telecommunications and utility companies.

One of the problems is that a few years ago, when there was a single telecoms company, not many companies were entitled to have access in that way. The latest estimate suggests that there are about 80 such licence holders who have code powers to dig up the roads. The local authorities in central London estimate that whereas 10 years ago there were about 10 such companies, there are now about 30. That may well explain some of the conditions with which the noble Lord is familiar on the streets of London.

It is important that better co-ordination is introduced. The local authorities in London are attempting to achieve that and, as your Lordships will know from previous questions, we have just completed a consultation process on how we can better control this matter.

Lord Peston: My Lords, as a Keynesian economist, I suppose that I should not object to the fact that a large chunk of the labour force is digging holes; that a second large chunk is filling them up again; and a third chunk is looking on, supervising. But perhaps my noble friend can help me in order for me to retain my sanity. Am I right that in London there has been an enormous proliferation of so-called "minor" roadworks which have caused major disruption during the past year and that the number seems to have grown tremendously without, as the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, pointed out, anybody seeming to be responsible?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am not sure that anybody has those statistics. Certainly in relation to central London, there is a general impression that there has been a lot of activity. That relates primarily not to the highways authorities, which are the direct responsibility, in the main, of the local authorities, but to utility companies and, in particular, to the proliferation of cable companies which, under their licences, have the right to require access to under-road sites.

It is a changed situation from that which existed a decade ago. The local authorities are attempting to achieve better co-ordination, but the situation may require legislation. Our consultation process was directed at that and we are now considering the responses.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, is the Minister satisfied with the provisions of the New Roads and Street Works Act?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the provisions of the New Roads and Street Works Act would, if triggered, allow us to charge for over-stay but not on a daily basis. We were addressing the issue of whether we need more substantial powers in order to allow the highways authorities to charge for the total period. There was a

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mixed response to the consultation. If we were to go further than the provisions of the current Act, we should require primary legislative authority.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, with reference to one of the Minister's earlier answers, when are the results of the consultation and the new code likely to be published? Does he acknowledge that one effect of all this new underground cabling is to make very much more expensive the activities of local authorities in trying to modify the roadways? It is much more expensive to interrupt a fibre cable than to interrupt an ordinary, old-fashioned type of cable. Can anything be done to make sure that statutory undertakers channel their cables, pipes and so on through the same channels so that everyone knows where they are and it is easier to manage the highway above and around them?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, there is an attempt to get together the various bodies which have the right to access below ground so that they can operate their cable lines and access to that cabling on a co-ordinated basis. However, that does not entirely answer the noble Baroness's question because we should need further powers to ensure that they all follow the same line and that everything is co-ordinated. It is partially the case that access is more expensive, but there have been other improvements in the maintenance activities of highways authorities, both the Highways Agency and the local authorities, which offset that cost. Therefore, the main problem is not in relation to highway maintenance but in relation to utility access, particularly in our central city areas.

Lord Stallard: My Lords, will my noble friend comment on why it is that at this time every year roads and pathways are dug up, certainly in London, by local authorities which, all the year round, claim that they have no money to spend on anything and yet, suddenly, in March, they have money to spend on roads? There is hardly a road in one piece throughout the whole of north London at the moment and those works all involve local government money. Where has it come from?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, my noble friend is not entirely correct to say that those are works by local authorities and highways authorities. As I indicated earlier, they are works carried out by utilities companies. The particular phenomenon at the moment is the cable companies which are providing a cable network within central London. That is what is causing the particular problem.

It is true that a substantial amount of maintenance work is being carried out by local authorities. The usual complaint in relation to local authority road maintenance is that there is not enough of it, rather than that there is too much of it. I hope that in the local transport plans we shall put that right. That should be

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done on a planned and systematic basis which runs for five years and does not concentrate expenditure at one time.

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