Draft Local Authorities (Contracting out of Highway Functions) (England) Order 2001 and Draft Street Works (Charges for Occupation of the Highway) (England) Regulations 2001

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Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): May I welcome you to the Committee, Mr. Cran?

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In broad terms, we are all in favour of the aims and aspirations of both orders. Clearly, problems arise in all our communities, but do not necessarily require such orders. The hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) referred to problems in her local authority over works undertaken outside residents' or businesses' properties. In many local authorities, officers negotiate proper contracts with undertakers to ensure that such situations do not arise or that, if they do, they can be dealt with quickly and effectively on behalf of the businesses or constituents concerned. In Camden, those problems might reflect poor local authority officers or members, rather than being the fault of undertakers.

Glenda Jackson: I must rise to defend my local authority. In my experience, that has not been the case. Contracts can be extremely well worked-out in no small detail, but utilities tend to subcontract that work, often to not just one but several companies. Problems in nailing the representatives of those subcontracted companies to do the job that they are supposed to be doing are surely the fault of those utilities, not the local authority.

Mr. Sanders: I accept the hon. Lady's point. When there is a subcontracting culture, the audit trail, or the responsibility trail, becomes fractured.

I am confused by what the Minister said. We seem to have been asked to pass two orders that apply to pilot schemes, which would be restricted to them but which could then apply to all local authorities. That is why I am confused. The pilots have not been completed, but we are altering the arrangements for them. If the orders are passed, I presume that the legislation could be rolled out across all authorities by order of the Secretary of State. What is the mechanism for rolling it out to another authority? Will authorities be asked to apply for the powers, and if so, on what criteria will their applications be judged?

I understand that the study undertaken by TRL Ltd. suggests that a daily lane rental cost of £500 across Great Britain would cost utility companies between £109 million and £334 million. The Minister has said that, according to the documents before us, many works will be charged at a lower rate or not at all, and that the real cost to the utility companies should be less. However, it is still a cost on them, and they will want to be recompensed by increasing charges. Ultimately, we will all pay for that. We are not getting something for nothing.

I am concerned that, if charges are brought in, some contractors or subcontractors might take risks and not close lanes, although they would do so if charges did not apply. How will that be avoided? Will an authority have the power to say that a lane must be closed in order to carry out work? Can an authority instruct an undertaker to that effect?

Are the orders completely separate from regulations or legislation pertaining to reinstatement? The hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate, who has, I am afraid, now left the Room, mentioned reinstatement. I thought that that was a completely separate issue. Can the Minister put us right on that?

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Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): I think that, for the past decade or so, those who dig up the road have had to get a permanent reinstatement straight away, whereas, 20 years ago, they had only to restore it; the Highways Agency would then come along six months later and put in the permanent reinstatement. Most of the problems have gone. It cannot be denied that, occasionally, reinstatement goes wrong, but the general problem has disappeared.

Mr. Sanders: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his helpful intervention.

Will undertakers have to pay, for example, when responding to problems such as a gas or water leak? Would they have to stay on site for several days until charging was triggered? That is important, because a gas or water leak might not be entirely the utility's fault—it could have been caused by another utility or by an act of God. Will authorities charge themselves when they are the undertaker, or will they be able to waive charges?

Will an undertaker have to pay a lane rental when the work concerned is lane resurfacing? It would be ridiculous if it had to pay a charge for closing a lane that needed to be resurfaced. I can see nothing in the regulations to prevent that from happening. What is to prevent an authority from levying such a charge?

I hope that the Minister can respond to those serious and important points. The problem appears to be simple, but resolving it is complicated and may ultimately increase the bills that people have to pay for their gas, electric cable, or other service delivered under the surface of the road. The provisions are well intentioned but could make the problem worse.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr. Cran.

I share the views and concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire about the exact purpose of the regulations, which as I understand it, is to get statutory undertakers or utilities to co-ordinate their work. The hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate said that, often, as soon as one kind of work has been completed, some other agency comes along and opens up the road again.

I remember that a previous Government introduced a Bill under the auspices of my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley), who was then the relevant Minister, to try to co-ordinate street works. Clearly, it has not been particularly successful, but I question whether it is that easy to get the various utilities and statutory undertakers to co-ordinate their work. For example, it is unlikely that there will be a need to repair a gas pipe at exactly the same time and in exactly the same spot as there is a need to repair a telephone line, and the mind boggles as to what would happen if a water main burst and the electricity company decided that that would be a suitable time to repair its wiring. However much we will it, in practice we shall not be able to achieve the co-ordination that we all want.

Paragraph 5(4) of the street works regulations states that the charge—''c'' in the formula ''c x d''—will be

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    ''such amount, not exceeding £1,000, as the authority decides is appropriate.''

That is an open invitation for every authority to charge £1,000. Given that the regulations are that specific, why does the paragraph go on to say that

    ''d is the duration of the works.''?

That might be an open invitation for some local authority or highway authority to say, ''In our opinion, d will be the number of hours''. It might be more helpful if it were ''the duration in days of the works.'' Public utilities might be encouraged to start their works at midnight instead of doing them over two days divided by a midnight. That is a small but fundamental point. Such works could be carried out in residential areas, and if a day is judged to run from midnight to midnight, those who live nearby could be caused a distinct disadvantage.

I want an assurance that a formal scale will state the exact duration of such works, and to know whether works on utilities will be encouraged to run from midnight to midnight. Where such works are carried out over two days because the area in question is residential, the local authority should be encouraged to make a lower charge.

My third and final point concerns streets and highways. I apologise for asking this question but I am not a lawyer. Does the highway include the pavement?

Ms Keeble indicated dissent.

Sir Sydney Chapman: The Minister says that it does not. Lucky are those utilities, therefore, that installed their wires and pipes under the pavement rather than the road. Why should installation under a road—many years ago, utilities were installed under roads—be taxable, given that installation under a pavement is not?

5.15 pm

Peter Bottomley: I can save the Minister the bother of replying to my hon. Friend. Regulation 2 states that minor works, which may be charged for in some cases, are street works

    ''whether in the footway, verge or carriageway''.

That definition is conditional on whether they

    ''form part of a rolling programme of works, and do not involve more than 30 metres of works or leave less than 3 metres width of carriageway available for traffic.''

In effect, if the works do not affect the carriageway, the provision probably will not apply, but it could apply to works on the footway, which do affect the carriageway.

Sir Sydney Chapman: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is an expert in these matters, and his comments have made me even more concerned about the regulations. Different local authorities will interpret them in different ways and will charge in different ways.

I shall not say that the regulations are just another way to raise money. Nor, given that I want to co-operate with Government members of the Committee, shall I use the phrase ''stealth tax'', but it certainly seems to be a new underground tax.

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I make this final plea to the Minister: given that the regulations are so vague, will she be specific about the amount that authorities can charge in relation to the maximum of £1,000 a day? If the period in question is a day, the regulations should state as much. They should also state for which roads and highways local authorities must make a lesser charge, for which they can charge more, and approximately what that charge should be.

Chris Mole (Ipswich): For the sake of safety I should declare an interest, in that I am a member of a local authority with responsibility for highways. I should also point out that this is my first contribution in this place, so I ask for forgiveness, should I say anything inappropriate.

In general, I totally support the aims behind the regulations, and I want to ask the Minister some helpful questions. On regulation 5(4) and the £1,000 multiplier, I accept that the initial intention is to set authorities a lower target figure, but is there a mechanism for uprating the £1,000 ceiling in line with, say, inflation over time?

Regulation 5(5) states:

    ''Where street works are carried out by an undertaker at the junction of two or more streets, and different rates of prescribed charge apply to those streets, the works shall be charged at whichever of those rates appears appropriate to the authority.''

In the short term, only pilot arrangements will apply, but in the longer term what mechanism would resolve a situation of the kind that I have outlined, if the junction of two or more streets was at the boundary between two authorities? Who would determine the charging rate?

It has been noted that under regulation 5(9)

    ''Charges may only be made in respect of works for which notification is required to be given by notice pursuant to the Act''.

What would happen about emergency works?

 
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