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

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Mr. Clifton-Brown: Let me suggest a method that may be innovative and useful. There are some useful IT programmes based on postcodes. Would it not be possible to co-ordinate centrally street works based on postcodes, so that any member of the public who wanted to look up the details of an individual scheme could do so?

Mr. Hill: I am most grateful for that interesting observation, to which I shall respond in due course if inspiration happens to wing its way in my direction. While we tentatively await that moment, I can say that, if I am unable to respond to the point verbally, I shall do so in writing.

Earlier, I announced the research project to be undertaken by Halcrow. The project has two aims, the first of which is to gather information on the number and type of street works being carried out across England. Currently, we have no concrete evidence and rely largely on anecdotes. That work will continue for five years to allow us to calculate trends in the number of works being carried out. We envisage that Halcrow will present us each spring with a report covering the previous financial year. There is no reason why a summary version of the reports could not be made public.

The second aim is to monitor the effect of the new section 74 charging powers on disruption levels. In gathering baseline data for the study, Halcrow will contact every highway authority in England to discover what use they intend to make of the section 74 powers and what suitable baseline data they hold. We shall then select a representative sample of authorities, which we will monitor. Halcrow will produce a report by the end of the year with an assessment of the first six months of the new powers and a further report at the end of the 2001-02 financial year.

In assembling the baseline data for the study, we shall gather data already held by highway authorities and utilities. In addition, a number of authorities have already informed us that, although they intend to make use of the section 74 powers, they will not do so immediately. We intend to obtain baseline data from some user authorities and we envisage monitoring a number of authorities that choose not to operate the section 74 powers for comparative purposes. We are hard at work to identify that baseline.

Mr. Don Foster: Did the Minister say that highway authorities would not be using the new regulations for some time? If they are to be introduced in a fortnight, what instructions has he given to the highway authorities on when they can use the regulations?

Mr. Hill: In principle, the highway authorities will be able to use the regulations from the time they come into force—namely 1 April, if that is the will of the Committee. However, we must allow local authorities to make a judgment on the best time to gear up to implement the regulations. That is when we shall able to bring Halcrow in to identify the baseline from which section 74 activities might be measured.

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman asked further questions on Halcrow.

Mr. Foster: The question was simple. Will the Minister tell the Committee whether Halcrow obtained the work following competitive tendering and whether he will make public the conditions of employment or the job specification?

Mr. Hill: On the latter point, we intend to make the conclusions of the research available to the House, so the specifications will become apparent then.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the contract was put out to tender and the answer is yes. Seven organisations were invited to tender for the work and three were interviewed by my Department, following which Halcrow was awarded the contract. I hope that that reassures him.

The hon. Gentleman asked me whether lane rental regulations were being prepared. The answer is not yet, but we shall be drafting them in consultation with the utilities and local authorities and will consult on them later.

I turn to the matters raised by hon. Member for Cotswold--I presume that the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) is agreeable, because I dealt with his two questions when replying to questions from other hon. Members. The hon. Member for Cotswold began by saying that the origin of the regulations originated in Conservative legislation--the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991. He is right. I pay tribute to the perspicacity of that Conservative Government in introducing the measure and I am delighted that we can move forward with a wide basis of consensus.

I have dealt with the questions concerning powers to co-ordinate and to delay. The hon. Gentleman asked whether the charges that local authorities can make will enable them to recover their costs. I remind him that local authorities will have the power to vary charges within the parameters set out and we expect those charges to reflect the costs incurred. We have also said that any residual revenue must be deployed for local transport purposes.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether all undertakers have the same obligations and the answer is yes.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Do cable companies have the same obligations as other statutory undertakers?

Mr. Hill: Yes, all undertakers have the same obligations.

The hon. Member for Bath referred by implication to the liberalisation of the licensing regime that is anticipated in current legislation. We are in discussions with the utilities and the Department of Trade and Industry on the future liberalised licensed regime so that we can achieve a measured and sensible approach to the new circumstances. However, it is important to recognise that not all utilities belong to overarching umbrella organisations such as the National Joint Utilities Group. There is an issue concerning the policing of utilities, some of which may be less scrupulous than others in implementing their obligations, but they are responsible for notifying local authorities.

The hon. Member for Cotswold asked what would happen in an emergency, such as a gas leak. It would not be necessary to notify the local authority in such an emergency, which is usually dealt with quickly.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the hours of work of the undertaker and whether there are powers to control the hours of work. That varies and it is for local authorities and the undertakers to agree the hours. It is sometimes appropriate and desirable for work to be done at night. I passed through the centre of Brixton in my constituency yesterday evening and there was a lot of road work activity. There were no residential properties nearby, and as Brixton is extremely congested it is absolutely sensible to carry out such work at night.

Finally, on software, we are happy to consider the hon. Gentleman's good idea about postcodes, but with 1 million or more road works a year, it is impossible to cover everything and it is better to concentrate on major work on strategic routes. However, it may be possible to pursue that path and I shall certainly consider it.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The only point that the Minister did not cover, and one which exasperates the public, is reinstatement—not only immediate reinstatement, but subsequent reinstatement after six or 12 months.

Mr. Hill: The hon. Gentleman is correct--I overlooked that matter, which causes great irritation. Regulations impose duties on undertakers to carry out work properly and provide sanctions if it emerges that the work was unsatisfactory. I do not have the information immediately to hand, but I shall write to the hon. Gentleman about it.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Street Works (Charges for Unreasonably Prolonged Occupation of the Highways) (England) Regulations 2001.

        Committee rose at twenty-eight minutes past Five o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Benton, Mr. Joe (Chairman)
Campbell-Savours, Mr.
Clifton-Brown, Mr.
Fallon, Mr.
Foster, Mr. Don
Hendrick, Mr.
Hill, Mr.
Hughes, Mr. Kevin
Marsden, Mr. Paul
Moore, Mr.
Norris, Dan
Stoate, Dr.
Syms, Mr.
Twigg, Mr. Derek
Vis, Dr.

 
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