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House of Lords

Friday, 30th June 2000.

The House met at eleven of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwark.

Countryside and Rights of Way Bill

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That it be an instruction to the Committee of the Whole House to whom the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill has been committed that they consider the Bill in the following order:

Clause 1, Schedule 1, Clause 2, Schedule 2, Clauses 3 to 8, Schedule 3, Clauses 9 to 42, Schedule 4, Clauses 43 to 47, Schedule 5, Clauses 48 to 53, Schedule 6, Clauses 54 to 63, Schedule 7, Clauses 64 to 66, Schedule 8, Clause 67, Schedule 9, Clauses 68 to 71, Schedule 10, Clauses 72 to 76, Schedule 11, Clauses 77 and 78.--(Lord Whitty.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Street Works Bill [H.L.]

11.6 a.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. If the rules of order only permitted it, I would prefer to move that this House do now adjourn and that those who are capable of walking quickly should take a stroll in the direction of Piccadilly Circus, in which case no further argument or debate would be called for. As it is, we must make do with the available procedure.

First, I remind your Lordships of a notable speech made by the Minister for Science, the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, on 5th April this year in reply to a Motion moved by myself. At that time he said that we were facing an "extremely serious

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situation". So far, he had your Lordships entirely with him. He then produced an astonishing announcement, coming from a government spokesman, when he said, "Our ears are open". Your Lordships will be aware that that is a very unusual posture for a government to assume. They are always terrified of hearing something they do not want to hear, or being given good advice which they will find almost irresistible.

The Minister went on to say that the Government were keen to ensure that disruption,

    "is kept to a minimum".--[Official Report, 5/4/00; col. 1326.]

I am not sure that even the passionate loyalty of the Minister who is responsible for replying to this debate will make it possible for him to say that they have been successful in their efforts in that regard.

The noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, added. at col. 1330, that,

    "the Government now intend to implement Section 74".

So far as most of us can see, nothing at all has happened since, although I believe the utilities have been busy lobbying the Government in order to frustrate their good intentions.

Let me turn briefly to the licensees, the 160 or more organisations which are allowed, with the minimum of notice or permission, simply to camp out on the roads and dig them up. Those representing the utilities seem to be totally and absolutely unaware of the irritation they cause to the legitimate users of the road who, again and again, throughout this country and not just in London, are frustrated in their quite lawful purposes of getting from A to B.

I received a letter not long ago, which I hope I can quote without giving offence, from a Mr David Nimmo who is chairman of the National Joint Utilities Group. In it he maintained that the utilities had every right to continue doing what they were doing and never referred to the irritation and congestion for which they are directly responsible. The general view of the licensees is that there are too many of them; that they make a mess; that they do not repair things when they finish; and that they take altogether too long. In short, they are an intolerable nuisance and do nothing to mitigate the effects of their activities upon the public.

I turn for a moment to the subcontractors. I should have thought it was totally acceptable that principals should be responsible for the skill, efficiency and organisation of the subcontractors. But, again and again, the utilities say, rather sheepishly, that they cannot control their subcontractors and the subcontractors act entirely independent of those who are instructing them. Again and again, the subcontractor digs a hole and just leaves it until it is convenient for the utilities--British Telecom, British Gas or whoever--to come along and do the work for which the hole was dug originally. The gap between the time when the subcontractor finishes the hole and the principal arrives on site to do what is required down that hole is intolerably long. In that regard, not for the first or last time, there is a total lack of co-ordination.

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"Co-ordination" is one of those lost words which the Government relish. When they cannot think of anything else to say, they say they will "co-ordinate" things. But in so far as they allow themselves to use that word, it is only to show that they know of the word but have no intention of practising it.

I turn for a moment to the highway authorities, with whom I have a measure of sympathy. If they are going to perform a useful role, they require both the power and the resources necessary. But they sometimes forget that, as highway authorities, they have a duty to make movement possible. Again and again, not only do they fail to co-ordinate the people who dig holes in their roads, but when they themselves are executing works--the need for which in some cases is open to question--the efficiency with which they do so is notable by its total absence. Some highway authorities seem to believe that one of their prime duties is the defence of bridges; in other words, bridges are pieces of invaluable territory which should be denied at all costs to the enemy--and, I should remind noble Lords, that "the enemy" is you and me.

I do not wish to be too parochial but, for months and months, either side of Westminster Bridge has been a mess--

A noble Lord: It is better this side!

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: Heavens knows what they are going to do with the other side. They have spent a long time doing it; indeed, it is one of the most leisurely and useless operations I have ever seen. Perhaps one ought to try to find who is responsible--if any thinking human being could be--for such gross confusion and a situation where nothing whatever is achieved. I return to the word "co-ordinate". It would be awfully nice if the noble Lord could run classes in his department for highway authorities through which they could be instructed how to spell the word "co-ordinate" and then be told what it means and how to practise it.

I turn briefly, because I wish to avoid any distasteful subjects, to the Highways Agency. This agency used to put up notices saying, "We apologise for any delay". Those concerned do not seem to understand how irritating such notices are; for example, those appalling notices which show up in lights along motorways indicating that the limit to the speed at which you can travel is 50 miles per hour. It is slightly irritating to people who have not been able to get to 5 miles per hour during the previous half-hour.

I wish to be totally fair in my remarks and, therefore, I should not like to leave out the DTI, which, of course, has absolutely no interest in movement at all. Indeed, stagnation is nearer to what the department specialises in. Movement is something it views with great hostility and is quite successful in frustrating. This is the department that has distributed the licences in question to all its friends in the same way that some of us send Christmas cards to people one does not see very often. The Christmas card serves as

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a reminder of your existence. It is a gentle indication that you are very fond of them and remember them and, indeed, wish to be remembered by them. That is the sort of relationship I suspect exists between the DTI and the host of people to whom it gives licences. Perhaps they could just be told to move by the Minister. However, I do know that Ministers who are responsible for transport are not always much listened to by their colleagues. Quiet and modest, as always--it has been the case for a very long time--they are rewarded by total inattention from their colleagues.

I turn for a moment to the Department of Transport--poor lost souls. I have great regard, even affection, for them. But, every now and again, I wish that they could be given the loan of some teeth. The noble Lord has a great role to play here. If he could only fit his department with an acceptable set of dentures, heaven knows what his officials could achieve! It is, perhaps, the lack of anything else to do. It seems to me that the people in the noble Lord's department simply spend their time--perhaps at the behest of that all-powerful figure the Secretary of State--thinking up ways in which they can make motorists pay more than they already pay. Motorists may have to pay some sort of charge for the congestion that they cause; but, at the same time, these pestilential people who go and dig up our already narrow roads are let off scot-free with no payment at all.

Again, as I do not wish to leave anyone out, I have a suspicion that somewhere at the bottom of the heap, and making a sort of quiet contribution to all this, is the Treasury-- wedded, as it is, to existing procedures and always supporting short-term considerations. I hope that it will not stand in the way--as I suspect it does--of new technologies. I had a communication the other day from a society promoting trenchless technology. I have nothing to do with that matter and I do not know the society concerned. However, I very much hope that someone will consider this other way of carrying out necessary work in the neighbourhood of the highways without the hideous interruptions that now routinely occur and which we are asked to regard as inevitable.

There are various lessons to be learned here. I do not wish to seem too pious but I hope I may put forward three points which I think the Minister would do well to support and amplify. First, efficiency and good manners are commendable. If those who conduct their works on the road were to be efficient and show that they had good manners, they might make their large, powerful organisations, and the privileges they enjoy, more acceptable to the public.

Secondly, I return to the matter of co-ordination which has almost disappeared from action; it has a place only in the language. Thirdly, in my view the Government simply cannot and must not continue to stand aside and tolerate delay while the congestion for which they are indirectly responsible is allowed to continue to the intense annoyance of legitimate users of the road. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.--(Lord Peyton of Yeovil.)

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11.21 a.m.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, I rise to second the Motion moved by the noble Lord, Lord Peyton.

I am most anxious--I believe that noble Lords have this in common--that somehow some way must be found to ensure that the costly dislocation caused by the spate of roadworks over the past six months is not repeated. In short, we have to do something about it. I belong to that generation of politicians who have immense admiration for the work of those dedicated civil servants and parliamentary counsel who draft our laws and, in various ways, pilot them through both Houses of Parliament. When the recent debacle started to occur--this still, incidentally, continues in parts of London--I immediately bethought me of Section 74 of the 1991 Act that passed through your Lordships' House and the Commons without over much disagreement. I read it again. It seems to me on the face of it that, provided the provisions of the Act are properly enforced, there probably would not be over much trouble.

I say that despite two factors. Our existing troubles have stemmed from two factors. The first is an inclination on the part of local authorities--particularly those sections concerned with transport--to spend any surpluses they might have at the end of the financial year. As noble Lords probably know, any surpluses at the end of the year are by Treasury tradition repatriated to the Treasury and form the basis of the following year's money that the authority will receive. This has gone on for a long time. If I may hazard a guess, this has occurred on an even greater scale since the present Government have been in office. I have personally witnessed that ingredient on the various roads that I have travelled on.

Where I live it is undoubtedly the case that in the few weeks or months preceding 31st March holes and trenches suddenly appear in the roads all over the place. They are dug, then left for two or three days while the tea brews and then are resumed without any further indication of action. Those works last for ever. It is not just a question of works being carried out in separate places; sometimes they are carried out in the same place two or three times within a month or six weeks. Local authorities which have surpluses on their transport account have an inbuilt desire to commence a spate of repairs before the end of the financial year.

However, this time we have a different ingredient altogether. When the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, first eloquently and properly raised the matter in your Lordships' House, I was most puzzled to discover that the Minister who replied was the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, from the Department of Trade. I wondered why he should shoulder the onerous responsibility of trying to account for roadworks that are being carried out all over the capital city of the United Kingdom at the instigation of people other than local authorities. Noble Lords who were present in the Chamber at the time were told that 86 general licences had been granted to the cable and communications industries without any particular conditions attached. They were certainly not explicitly subject to the provisions of Section 74 of the 1991 Act.

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The Minister expatiated at some length on that matter. He indicated that these events were inevitable and that the communications industry and information technology constituted a valuable export for the United Kingdom and would contribute enormously to the country's future economy, and that therefore these foreign companies with British subcontractors should be allowed to do more or less what they liked. They operate under no inhibitions at all. I plead in my support those sections of Hansard to which the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, made such a notable contribution.

Therefore, we have a situation in which parliamentary responsibility, at any rate temporarily, seems to have been taken over by the Department of Trade and Industry. I was reminded by my own Front Bench that the Prime Minister decides which ministry will deal with which matter. I can only assume that the Prime Minister gave instructions for the matter to be dealt with in both Houses by the Department of Trade and Industry. I do not believe that the matter has been dealt with with any degree of satisfaction because the problem has continued.

The problem is one of enforcement of the law as it now stands, perhaps with the amendment now proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Peyton. The law needs to be enforced without delay as, on the basis of current statements, the trouble will continue. That means that a large section of the population, notably those who inhabit the largest capital city in the world and those who make use of its roads and parking, will continue to be inconvenienced. I hope that your Lordships agree that this should stop.

The Government are all powerful; they can do exactly what they want. They have the means, in other words, to order people to do so and so and to check upon their progress. They can even form focus groups to investigate, report on and, possibly, enforce compliance--bearing in mind, of course, that some members of focus groups are themselves members of various industries, not excluding the construction industry. The Government have the power to do that.

Why then, when we have that power, do we not exercise it? I can only assume that some of the arts of planning for enforcement--that is to say, making an objective assessment of resources and facilities prior even to an Act being enacted--are not being carried out. It means, simply, that this operation--which has cost millions and millions of pounds by way of a novel form of indirect taxation to carry out in extenso--need never have happened in the first place had there been proper planning at ministry level--and, indeed, ultimately, at Minister level. I offer Ministers the only excuse that I can: that they are overworked, have little time to think, practically no time to read, and act on a day-to-day basis without having the remotest idea of what they are inflicting on the United Kingdom population.

I sincerely hope that when the noble Lord--who is one of the most amiable Peers in your Lordships' House--comes to reply, he will be able to explain not only some of the gross planning errors that have taken

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place over the past six months, but to give us some hope that the Government will take this matter by the scruff of the neck and solve it without further delay.

11.32 a.m.

Lord Monson: My Lords, nothing better illustrates the need for a Bill of this kind than the fact that an unexpected encounter with just the kind of problems it seeks to address caused me to miss the first two-thirds of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, for which I apologise.

We must all be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, for introducing this very topical and much-needed Bill. If, after modification in Committee, it becomes law, it will go some way towards making daily life less difficult, not only for motorists but for all those who travel by bus.

One of the Bill's great merits is that it gets away from the idea that imposing penalties can solve the problem. Certainly penalties may have a role to play, but they are by no means the sole or even the main answer. The best solution is surely a market solution--which is, in essence, what the Bill provides for. Companies dig up roads--or have roads dug up on their behalf--not for fun but in order to make higher profits, if not in the short term, then certainly in the longer term. There is nothing wrong with that. But they should be prepared to pay--or, if one prefers, invest--in order to secure those profits, given that the disruption necessarily involved greatly inconveniences others.

As the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said, when speaking from the Government Back Benches in our debate on this subject on 5th April,

    "the way forward is relatively simple. It is to charge the utilities responsible for digging holes in the road for the value of the time wasted by drivers as a consequence".--[Official Report, 5/4/00; col. 1309.].

One cannot better that.

But it is not a zero-sum game since the financial outlay involved would provide a strong incentive to complete the necessary works much more swiftly and efficiently. A report in the Evening Standard on 28th June, two days ago, revealed that the Corporation of the City of London, mindful of the burdens that traffic disruption imposes upon the City, has initiated a ducting network, accessed by manholes, three miles in length, which should cut roadworks in the City by as much as one-third by next year. This shows how much things can be improved when people really try and apply their minds to the problem--stimulated by financial considerations, of course.

I submit that the Bill in its final form should not be restricted to the utilities, the TV cable companies and their agents because there are others who are responsible for blocking the Queen's highway. As the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, said in opening his debate on 5th April,

    "those who use the highway for the purposes of their business should pay for the privilege".--[Official Report, 5/4/00; col. 1307.]

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I may be wrong, but I am sure that the noble Lord was thinking that everyone who "sterilised" the highway should pay, not merely those who dig holes in it.

Most noble Lords who live or work in central or west London will have experienced the blocked road and consequent serious congestion in Beauchamp Place. This has lasted for several months--it delayed me this morning because it has got a lot worse since last week--and was caused by the collapse of two or three 18th century buildings. Noble Lords will also know of the lesser but still serious congestion in Knightsbridge caused by the expensive conversion of the former Hyde Park Hotel into the doubtless more profitable Mandarin Oriental. In justice, surely the leaseholders or freeholders should have compensated motorists for the Beauchamp Place congestion and the wealthy Mandarin Oriental group should have compensated them for the Knightsbridge congestion.

But that is a matter to be addressed in Committee. I trust that the House will willingly give this valuable Bill a Second Reading.

11.36 a.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I have sought permission to speak in the gap very briefly. After the brilliant, powerful and witty speech of my noble friend, I have nothing of consequence to add.

But I have a kind of constituency--indeed, we all have. Perhaps I may refer to taxi drivers. A taxi driver told me this story, which I thought might add to the interest of the occasion. He said that a man quite recently walked out of the town hall in Cardiff and came upon three men sitting around a hole. They had a birthday cake with one candle on it, and they were singing "Happy Birthday". So he stopped and asked them, "Whose birthday is it?"; and they said, "The hole's".

11.37 a.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: Follow that, my Lords. We owe the noble Lord, Lord Peyton of Yeovil, a debt of gratitude for introducing this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Monson, missed a treat by not hearing the first two-thirds of the noble Lord's speech. It was so splendidly witty that it is impossible to try to contest even the most outrageous and elaborate of the noble Lord's elegant and armour-piercing insults. I shall not even attempt to do so. I shall read them again; I think that we shall all treasure them.

My personal experience in this matter started many years ago when my husband and I decided that the Kings Road was a kind of test bed for entrepreneurial road diggers, and that the (then existing) GLC allowed them to practise their skills on that piece of road. In the 20 years that we drove up and down from Richmond, it was never not under repair at some point or other; it was never free of holes on a single day that we attempted to drive along it.

I later came across the problem of roadworks as a county councillor. I was elected in 1985 and I served on the highways and transport committee for the

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subsequent 12 years. An early lesson in how to deal with the utilities was given by a fellow councillor from the same district when, for the second time in a year, roadworks in Dorking--this time caused by a need for new telephone lines--threatened access for shoppers and, therefore, local livelihoods. Meanwhile, local radio networks were just getting into gear--there were more of them then in our part of the world than there are now--and they were all delighted to tell their listeners that you could not go to Dorking to shop because the roads were up; or not to visit Epsom under any circumstances because something was going wrong. Long after the roadworks had finished, those voices of doom were still discouraging people from coming to shop in those towns. So there are many enemies of local shopkeepers in our smaller towns.

As a former diplomat, that local councillor displayed great guile in reaching his objectives. First, he wangled concessions as to the timing of the work to avoid Christmas, the routing of the cables to avoid the worst bottlenecks and the availability of a named person to field complaints and so on. Secondly--this was the real key to the matter--he finalised these discussions with the undertaker at a public meeting at which other local elected officials, including myself, the chamber of commerce and individual retailers, county and district officers and the local papers were present. It was impossible for the undertaker to wriggle out of his commitment. That is an excellent example of the value of what today is called "transparency".

It is difficult to remember that 15 years ago there was virtually no cabling, few utility companies and few statutory undertakers. It was their proliferation which led to the 1991 Act. That Act brought some practical benefit in terms of better restitution and led to the lane rental approach operated on the motorways. The noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, on the Opposition Front Bench is shaking his head. That ability to fine people working on the motorways if they spent longer on the work than they had undertaken to spend was extremely useful.

Another problem arises from companies' understandable reluctance to anticipate future works--the programmed laying of additional telephone lines, cables, drains, water mains and so on--when a road is up for another undertaker's work. The classic result is the reappearance of the drills, holes, cones and other paraphernalia a few weeks after the first group has left. If only people could be encouraged to ask, "What am I doing in the next six months?" and "Could I not fix the line underneath the road while the other guys are laying their bit, even if I do not attach it at both ends to its final objective?" That would prevent a great many of the difficulties from which we all suffer.

The noble Lord, Lord Peyton, mentioned the question of trenchless techniques, a point which he raised in a Question in your Lordships' House a little while ago. Those techniques make it possible to put through all these services without digging up the road. As he said, such equipment exists. It was interesting for me to learn that, according to one of the promoters of

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such a system, its use is declining. One asks oneself why. The answer is that the equipment is quite expensive and is difficult to move. The contractors do so much profitable work using their more traditional techniques that there is no incentive to invest in new techniques. As the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, said, the DETR should pay attention to this problem. Dare I suggest a review, or perhaps an application of the Deputy Prime Minister's famous ability for "knocking heads together", in order to try to encourage or persuade contractors to be more up to date in a bid to deal more fairly with the public?

The issue of holes in the road, apart from being the absolute mainspring of what used to be regarded as the Liberal preserve of footpath politics, has implications not only for the commercial and business economy of towns, large and small, but also for road safety. Holes in the road cause delay; delays cause frustration; frustration causes road rage, or at least more aggressive driving; and rage and aggression cause accidents.

The proposed Bill contains some partial solutions to the problem. A financial penalty could perhaps have an effect on attitudes to scheduling of works to fit in with other undertakers' activities. It might reduce the length of time that any given set of works takes. It might discourage the irritating interruptions of work on existing sites. It might encourage principals to put pressure on contractors to behave better and so generally reduce delays in the completion of works. But the chief merit of this debate will, it is to be hoped, be to stimulate fresh government thinking on this widespread problem. We await with great interest the response of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty.

11.45 a.m.

Lord Brabazon of Tara: My Lords, we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to my noble friend Lord Peyton of Yeovil for introducing his Bill today and also for the persistence with which he has pursued this subject over the past few months. My noble friend has already achieved two great successes, one of which is that he has persuaded the Government finally to introduce Section 74 of the New Roads and Street Works Act. Incidentally, he has made Section 74 of the Act almost as famous as another section which your Lordships continually debate. I hope that we shall hear today from the Government about how they intend to go ahead with that.

My noble friend referred to a letter he received-- although the letter did not satisfy him--from the industry itself. Nevertheless, he must have made the industry well aware of the concerns not only of this House but of the general public.

The Bill gives us the opportunity to probe the Government on how they intend to introduce the regulations under Section 74 of the Act. I wish to raise two particular issues, one of which I think was covered slightly at Question Time the other day. First, what will be the scale of charge on the utilities for occupying the highway? The difference between the regulations and the Bill is that the charge will not start on day one,

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so to speak, but the utilities and the highway authorities will have somehow to agree on how long particular works should take; and if they exceed that length of time, the charge will come into effect. That is similar, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, said, to the lane rental scheme operated on the motorways. I do not think that the New Road and Street Works Act had anything to do with the introduction of lane rental. That was a direct administrative and contractual arrangement between the Highways Agency, or, in those days, the Department of Transport, and the particular contractors. It has been a very great success. There are now many occasions when roadworks are completed in a much shorter space of time than would have been the case in the old days.

When my noble friend Lord Peyton first started raising this issue I was slightly surprised, as I know my noble friend was, that we continually received replies from the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, at the Department of Trade. He very much concentrated on the issue of the cable companies. Of course the problems lie not just with the cable companies. I am persuaded, as he tried to persuade us, that indeed we have to move ahead with new technology. But there are also the older, more traditional utilities--gas, water and electricity. A large programme of modernisation and investment needs to take place in the water industry, partly at the Government's instigation--quite rightly--to cure the problem of leaks in the water mains. On the other side of the coin, as a consumer of Thames Water, as most of your Lordships no doubt are, what slightly worries me is that if Thames Water is charged large amounts of money for digging holes in the road, only one group of people will pay for that at the end of the day. That is us.

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