Draft Street Works (Charges for Unreasonably Prolonged Occupation of the Highways) (England) Regulations 2001

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Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): The questions from the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) may have been interesting, but they were not as succinct as those of my hon. Friend the Member for Poole. I have seven points to raise, which I will deal with briefly because I can see that the poor Minister is getting writer's cramp.

I am delighted to say that it was the Conservatives who introduced the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991, which deals with the problem of statutory undertakers digging up roads. I will not return to the fact that works need to be carried out in a quick and timely manner. However, little has been said about different statutory undertakers carrying out works, one after the other. First, will the Minister say what powers are in the regulations to co-ordinate different statutory undertakers? Will a local authority have the power to delay a statutory undertaker when it knows that another undertaker is likely to dig up the same bit of road in the near future? Nothing annoys motorists and pedestrians more than to find the same piece of road or pavement dug up twice within a short period.

Secondly, we are rather good at loading responsibilities on to local authorities without giving them the means to recover the cost. In the proposed charging regime, does the Minister envisage that local authority charges will fully cover the administrative costs?

My third point was touched on by the hon. Member for Bath, and was sparked off by the cable companies. In my constituency, cable companies were found not to be under the same obligations to give notice of reinstatement or, more important, to carry out reinstatement at all after their work. Will all statutory undertakers, including cable companies, be covered by the regulations?

Fourthly, do those undertakers have the same obligations to reinstatement, not only immediately after the work is finished, but later—say, six months or a year—in order to follow up reinstatement? It is annoying for pedestrians to find that there is a huge crater where the smart-looking tarmac that was laid six months ago has sunk into a great trench.

Fifthly, what powers are there in the regulations for emergencies? There will be cases where statutory undertakers will need to come in at short notice—for example, to treat a gas or water leak. What powers will there be to notify the local authorities before the work begins?

Sixthly, the hon. Member for Bath raised a point about consultants. Consultants cannot work adequately unless a system exists for reporting back. How does the Minister envisage that Halcrow will receive complaints of difficulties of working with the statutory instrument?

Finally, will local authorities, when considering whether to grant a licence, take into account the hours of work of the statutory undertaker? Nothing is more annoying than hearing a pneumatic drill at 5 o'clock in the morning, or when people want to be out in their gardens on a bank holiday Monday. Will the hours of work, and whether those hours are applicable, be considered—with regard not only to weekdays, but to bank holidays? I hope that the Minister will answer those seven succinct points.

5.9 pm

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks): When I arrived this afternoon, I was hoping that the Committee would not be unreasonably prolonged. After examining the regulations further, however, I hope that you will forgive me, Mr. Benton, for putting two further matters to the Minister.

It would probably be unreasonable to expect him to explain every paragraph of the regulations, but I am not clear on how the regulation 7 procedure will work. It is wholly possible for various things to happen in the duration of any contract, even after it has just begun. There may be inclement weather such as severe frost, a storm or dangerously high winds in which people cannot work. There may be difficulties with ground conditions. If, under regulation 7, an undertaker says that he is revising his final completion date, but the local authority, under paragraph (2), refuses to accept that, what happens? If the local authority simply objects, what recourse does an undertaker have? Is he driven to the courts on a matter of civil dispute? No arbitration procedure has been laid down, so I should be grateful if the Minister would explain how the provision will work.

My second point is on the level of the fine. The fine prescribed for works under paragraph (4)(a) of regulation 5 is only £100 a day. I can envisage a situation in which contractors—perhaps responding to emergency works elsewhere, as my hon. Friend the Member for Poole described—consider that a price worth paying. A fine of £100 a day is not a huge amount. With a civil contract, of course, an element of retention is built into the contract, and the sum would certainly be larger than £100 a day for the overrun. I wonder where the fines come from and whether the Minister believes that they will be sufficient. Minor works can be just as annoying and disruptive as major works.

5.6 pm

Mr. Hill: I am grateful to members of the Committee for their contributions and broad welcome for the provisions. I also congratulate them on discharging their parliamentary role of scrutinising and of probing the Government's intentions. I should, however, immediately enter a caveat. I have been asked innumerable questions, many of which involved considerable detail. Members of the Committee know only too well my desire to be an obliging Minister. If I cannot answer all the questions that have been put to me, I shall certainly scrutinise the Official Report and endeavour to write to hon. Members with suitable answers.

The hon. Member for Poole welcomed the provisions in principle, for which I am grateful, and asked several questions. First, he asked about exemption and whether the regulations exempted local authorities or the Highways Agency. Indeed, the hon. Member for Bath asked the same question implicitly when he asked about encouragement for other undertakers to speed up their activities. That is a valid point. It is broadly estimated that 1 million holes are dug in our roads each year. Local authorities, the highway authorities, dig rather more than half of them. They are, stricto sensu, road rather than street works, although there are misconceptions about that.

Hon. Members may have seen an expose in the Evening Standard two weeks ago about the scandal of inactivity in respect of what it deemed to be street works. It showed eight photographs of idle street works in various parts of London. In fact, seven of the eight photographs were of road rather than street works, which led to understandable consternation and resentment on the part of the utilities. I suppose that that is why they have employed Luther Pendragon to mount a publicity campaign on the matter in the coming months.

Let me attempt to answer the question asked by the hon. Member for Cotswold. The powers do not apply to highway authorities, but other measures do target them. The best practice guide and code of practice, which we shall issue on 1 April simultaneously with implementation of the regulations as part of a total package on street works, apply equally to utilities and highway authorities. However, there is an issue concerning who guards the guardians. We look to local authorities to police the street works regime, but we are puzzling and pondering as to who polices local authorities. We are responding to their oft-expressed desire for effective action to deal with disruption by utilities and we expect them, in turn, to co-ordinate and expedite their work.

The hon. Members for Cotswold and for Bath asked about action against local authority works. The Government are considering what might be done to reduce disruption from all works, including street and highways activity.

The hon. Member for Poole asked about the negotiation of the time scale. That is a matter for discussion between the undertaker and the local authority. If a utility challenged an estimate given by the local authority on the duration of the works, the two sides would have to try to resolve the disagreement, and if that proved impossible, the matter would have to be referred to an arbiter. That response covers the question from the hon. Member for Bath on what happens if a local authority behaves unreasonably. We expect local authorities to exercise common sense when street works may be delayed because of flood, inclement weather, the discovery of equipment below the surface of the road that is difficult to handle, other subterranean difficulties and so on. However, there is provision for an arbitration procedure, and if an undertaker and highway authority failed to agree on a reasonable deadline for completion of the works, the arbiter would be invoked. He would be appointed by agreement between the two sides or, if that proved impossible, by the president of the Institution of Civil Engineers. However, we expect such disagreements to be resolved between the two sides in the vast majority of cases and it is worth bearing in mind the fact that there is long and wide experience of the two sides working together.

The hon. Member for Poole asked whether undertakers might be tempted to review the expected duration to fiddle the system. That possibility is precluded by the regulations. There may be good reasons for work not being completed by the agreed deadline, but we expect the highway authorities to challenge the revised estimate if they believe it to be unjustified and they have the powers to do so under the regulations.

The hon. Gentleman asked for a definition of minor works. That definition appears in regulation 2, but I shall spare the Committee the tedium of hearing me read it in detail. I do not want to engage in any malevolent act on this positive, upbeat and sunny occasion.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked for a definition of the types of roads. There are four types of road—1, 2, 3 and 4—which are defined in the reinstatement specification. There are reinstatement categories according to traffic load. I hope that those answers reassure him.

The hon. Member for Bath welcomed the provisions, for which I am grateful. He is absolutely right to emphasise the need for co-ordination in such activities, which is essentially a matter of common sense and co-operation between undertakers. We are encouraging that by issuing various documents to facilitate the co-ordination process. I should begin, however, with an apology to the hon. Gentleman. Far be it from me to mislead the Committee, but I may inadvertently have done so in my response to his intervention about the length of consultation. He is absolutely right: the formal consultation on the regulations took place from September to November 2000. However, we announced our intention to activate section 74 in April last year, from which time detailed discussions took place with the utilities and highway authorities. There are structures and mechanisms to do that. Our officials work very closely with organisations such as HAUC and ENJUG—I find the acronyms in this sector slightly brutal—which are the co-ordinating bodies for utilities and local authorities. In late 1999, a previous consultation was held on various options for reducing disruption, so in a sense there were two forms of consultation.

The hon. Members for Bath and for Cotswold both asked about the monitoring exercise. The DETR does not keep central data on street works, but is considering using a DETR website, linked to local authority websites, to provide central information on works on strategic routes. If the Committee indulges me, I shall respond in a little more detail to the precise questions asked by the hon. Member for Bath.

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