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Lord Brougham and Vaux : My Lords, I have been listening very carefully to what the noble Lord has said. In the last six months in Westminster alone, once just outside Smith Square, Lloyds Bank dug a hole in the pavement which was there for a month; on another occasion, on the corner of Horseferry Road and Marsham Street, outside the new Department of the Environment, Transport, and the Regions building, there was a hole for three weeks.
Lord Sainsbury of Turville : My Lords, I appreciate that there are always incidents and cases to which one can point. In those cases it is for the local authority to take the appropriate action, and they do have the powers to do so.
The noble Lord, Lord Peyton, and my noble friend Lord Lipsey raised the question of a lane rental system. The consultation carried out by DETR included an option for lane rental. There was some support for this but not as much as for the Section 74 options that we are now intending to pursue. For the present we intend to concentrate on using the existing powers in Section 74, as well as working with utilities and highway authorities to develop best practice in streetwork operations.
Telecoms operators do already pay business rates on the infrastructure they install. The noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, raised the question of trenchless technology. There are research projects in this area, but these need further development before they can be widely used.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, gave me notice of the point he raised about the road between Matfield and Horsmonden in the Weald of Kent which was closed for four weeks. There are a number of quite special features about this particular situation. Level 3, the company involved, applied for a road closure as this would allow the company to complete the work within a shorter space of time than would otherwise have been the case. In the case of Horsmonden there is 900 metres of road, work on which will take a month--partly because there is a by-law which says that, for safety reasons, two gangs cannot work within two kilometres of each other; otherwise the time taken would be less.
There is a requirement under the notification procedures to discuss with the local authority and other interested parties, for example, people who have fronts on the road. They must also give notice of the expected duration of works to local authorities. Information must be placed on the register of streetworks, which is available for public inspection.
Turning to the question of loss of trade during streetworks, which the noble Lord rightly pointed out is, from experience, a subject dear to my heart, there is no right in law to a given level of passing trade and no general liability to compensate for loss of trade resulting from fewer passers-by, except when something is done improperly. Sometimes businesses suffer temporary loss of trade owing to traffic flow disruption, along with other commercial uncertainties. The assessment is always difficult. What is a loss to one company is often of benefit to the other. The main
The Government are committed to ensuring the widespread availability of speedy access infrastructure at an affordable price. It is vital to the growth of e-commerce and the success of the British economy over the coming decade. This infrastructure inevitably involves new construction.
Real consumer benefits are accruing now and will continue long into the future, but the Government fully acknowledge the real concerns raised in this House today and more widely about the localised but often significant disruption that this construction can cause. The Government are committed to minimising this disruption by improving co-ordination of streetworks; by strengthening reinstatement requirements; by improving existing controls; and by looking at how the penalties can be imposed where the work takes longer than expected.
As I have made clear, we are very willing to consider new ideas about what more might be done, both in the context of the consultation by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions about the New Roads and Street Works Act, and in the context of the future reform of communication legislation, on which the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport are now starting work.
This is an important subject. As I hope my remarks have made clear, the Government are seeking to reduce disruptions while not delaying the immense benefits that will come from the widespread deployment of new communications technology.
Lord Mayhew of Twysden: My Lords, before the Minister sits down, I have a question to ask. The noble Lord kindly referred to the case about which I gave him notice, but he did not say whether he is content with the present situation; namely, that a business is apparently entitled to no notice whatever from the contractor--the "authorised contractor", under the legislation of the noble Lord's department--as to when the works will take place or how long they will take. Indeed, there is no estimate whatever. Is the Minister content that that situation should continue?
Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I thought I had made it clear that contractors are required to give notification and that they must notify the local authority as to the expected duration of the works. In this case, I believe that Level 3 Communications followed the procedure of handing out leaflets to residents. However, I have only just received this information. I shall look into the matter in more detail and if there are any further points that require action I shall most certainly write to the noble and learned Lord.
We regarded this debate--at least I did--as a transport debate. However, although we acknowledge his ability, his eloquence and his mastery of his subject, the Minister replied in a way that did not cover the subject about which we were talking. I happily acknowledge the presence in the Chamber of the Minister with responsibility for transport. It is awfully tiresome for a busy Minister who has no role to play in the debate to come here to listen to the debate. Therefore, I should like to salute and thank the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for his courtesy in being here and listening to what was said. Perhaps I may rub that point in a little by saying that I hope he will really reflect upon our debate from a transport point of view and that he will in due course take an opportunity to give us his views on the points raised today.
In the legislative cascade from which we suffer at present, I believe that we will be faced with a transport Bill before very long. I hope that the Government will be sufficiently in possession of their senses at that time to ensure that a transport Minister handles the Bill. I can promise the noble Lord that I shall be only too willing to help with all kinds of suggestions by way of amendments to the Bill which will give some effect to the points that we have raised today.
The noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, replied to the debate with the utmost courtesy. The first half of his speech was quite clearly written well before the debate. That part of the speech expressed the reasonable point of view held by those who work in and advise the DTI; but that was not what we were discussing. The noble Lord came round in the end to touching on the main debate. In so far as he did so, his reply, as I understood it, was to say that he was content with the present situation; that Section 74 was all right; and that the additional powers suggested by my honourable friend at the beginning of 1999--that is, powers to fine those who default on time--were not needed. I believe that the latter was an extremely reasonable suggestion. But, with respect, the reply that we have received from the Minister did not address the question as to why the Bill was blocked. We have not received a clear answer to that question. That legislation would have given the Government the possibility of taking useful action.
Had the problem been eased since my honourable friend made that gallant attempt, there would have been no serious grounds for complaint today. However, the problem has not eased; indeed, it has multiplied and become much worse and much more acute. The Minister then went on to say something that astonished me. I believe that I am the only other speaker in the debate to mention the White Paper.
Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord, but perhaps I may make it clear that I made a significant point with regard to the blocking of that Bill; namely, that it took place during the consultation process on the question of Section 74, which deals with the option to charge utilities. If I did not make myself clear, perhaps I may repeat what I said. The Government now intend to implement Section 74 and will work with highway authorities and utilities to develop a scheme that will charge for overstaying. I thought that I had made that clear. It seems to me that that is a significant response to the debate.
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