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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Peter Bottomley: I welcome the hon. Member for Ipswich (Chris Mole) to the Committee. It is not his fault that there was a 3 per cent. swing to the Tories. We would have wanted it bigger, and he no doubt would have wished it absent altogether. If he speaks as well in the Chamber as he has here, many hon. Members will be pleased to listen to him, and he will bring much experience to the service of his constituents and the House.

I do not understand who knew my interest in the matters before us, and saw to it that I became a member of the Committee, but I am grateful. I declare that a firm called Luther Pendragon, which has been helping, pro bono, in the case of Mr. Krishna Maharaj, who is on death row in Florida, also alerted me to the business that we are concerned with, and has given me some information on behalf of the National Joint Utility group. I asked for the same information to be made available to the Minister, so while she may not have a reason to feel grateful, the Committee should be glad that the group has been able to brief its members and raise some concerns. Many of those concerns were included in the response to the consultation, which ended in October.

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An interesting question arises about whether officials and advisers have been able to put together the views that were contributed in response to the consultation and whether those were fully taken into account in the draft regulations for the pilot projects in Camden and Middlesbrough. Before the regulations, modified in the light of experience, are applied nationwide, it would be useful if the Minister could consider a meeting with the National Joint Utility group, and perhaps regular meetings every three or six months, to find out whether that experience could be used.

I do not want to make a nit-picking speech, but issues arise on which I am sure the Minister and her officials will try to achieve a balance. The matter is basically one of balance, proportion, perspective and professionalism. I am a bit concerned that we do not have details of the monitoring study. If we think about the study as if it were a medical experiment—leaving aside double-blind testing, which is not really appropriate—the first task is to compare what good highway authorities manage to achieve with their road openings; what happens, perhaps in a pilot area, where utilities are trying to achieve best practice without the modified penalty regime that we are considering; and what will happen as a result of introducing the new regime in Camden and Middlesbrough.

I do not think any reasonable scientific evidence will be obtained by studying only what happens in Camden and Middlesbrough, or by comparing what happens in the early months of the new regime—assuming the regulations are passed in the face of opposition—with what happened previously in Camden and Middlesbrough. I am not certain that information about what has been happening in advance of the introduction of the charging regime in those places is available to the Department or the consultants.

Without a base line, it will not be possible to draw any direct comparisons using any monitoring of what happens later. Have base-line measurements been made in Camden and Middlesbrough? What efforts have been made by some of the highway authorities, including the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, which looks after about 4 per cent. of the strategic network, to do as well as Camden and Middlesbrough utilities might do under the regulations, but without the advantage of those regulations? Where is the pilot study monitoring the liaison between the utilities and the two authorities under the old regime to see how well they do with the imposition of a penalty after expiry of the agreed time for the works? There are serious issues of professionalism in the study framework. I shall not hold it against the Minister if she cannot answer in detail, but those issues need to be considered.

I should like to mention my experience of doing up the basement of a London house. In trying to tie in with the contractors doing the work inside the house, it became necessary to change the electricity head from outside. The same thing had to be done to change the gas meter, and it might have been necessary to make similar road openings in order for Thames Water to install the water meter. Had I been able to co-ordinate

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those three utilities, let alone the cable company and BT, it would have been incredible. As it happens, there was a parking bay outside the house, which would be exempt under the regulations. The notion that the introduction of daily charges would enable many small businesses, never mind residential householders, to obtain the co-ordination needed stretches the imagination too far.

It will be an advantage to know what is in the road. That normally happens only when the roads have been dug up, because without a record of what is already there, a new record cannot be created; it is necessary to dig to find out. It is also advantageous for a highway authority, when it goes in for a major change in the road structure such as laying cobbles or constructing pedestrian-friendly areas—whether for environmental improvement or traffic management reasons—to give notice to the utilities that if they plan to do upgrading work over the next five or 10 years, that is the time to do it.

That is different from what this order, these powers and these charges would do, which would result in faster opening up of the road. The Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness has spoken about the supply of broad band to businesses, schools and, in time, individuals. Nearly all instances would require road openings and would provide £50 of tax credit against a possible charge of £300 for the work on the utility bill. That makes comparison difficult. This is a problem, and not every problem has an easy or complete solution. There is a degree of rough justice. The reasons why the roads are opened up so much more often now are not only the traditional ones, such as clean water, foul water, electricity and gas. It is increasingly for broad band, cabling connections and the like. We hear about joined-up government—the Minister might tell us what the Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness has done in response to the regulations and whether there will be consultation throughout Government if the regulations are likely to be applied beyond Camden and Middlesbrough.

I hope that the Minister can assure the Committee that, if the experience of these regulations does not demonstrate significant advantage, she will talk again to the utilities that are part of the National Joint Utility Group to see whether a modification of the penalty system would be better than this outright charging system. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire spoke about the first three days being free. I think that that applied to minor works only. I shall be pleased to be corrected if I am wrong—can the Minister say whether it applies to other works also?

The proposed daily charges in Camden and Middlesbrough, given in appendix D, do not look outlandish. However, if Transco is to spend £15 billion over the next 30 years, it might fear that the charges will be higher, because gas mains are generally near the middle of the road and require a lane to be imposed for the safety of the staff working on them. Those charges might be met by borrowing, as the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate recommends, or paid for by

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current consumers. There are some serious issues in relation to which the utility companies have not necessarily had the fair hearing that they deserve. The Minister may say that she has had many meetings with them, that they are all quietly content and that my briefing does not amount to much. None the less, it seems to me that it amounts to quite a lot.

Will the Minister say when the pilot schemes end and by when the consultants are required to produce their results? Perhaps she can also assure the Committee that no national regulations will be introduced suddenly without further consultation, if that is the wish of the National Joint Utility Group. It seems to me that we owe that to the group if the regulations are extended beyond the two important local schemes.

My hon. Friend asked whether the regulators would allow for the costs in pricing. That is important because, otherwise, the incentive will go out of the window. When I was involved in discussions about the secondary treatment of sewerage in West Sussex, it was clear that Southern Water would have been happy had it been required to meet a higher standard, because the regulator would have allowed for that cost in pricing and would also have allowed a profit margin. In effect, that makes the point raised by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate.

5.30 pm

Will the Minister say what consultation with the regulator has taken place and what was his response? If that information is not available this afternoon, perhaps it could be circulated to members of the Committee later and made available in the other place when it considers the regulations.

I shall not go through all of the briefing note—NJUG briefing note 3— on street works, but how will equivalent benefits be gained when local highways commission works on their own roads? We must presume that there is no point in a local highway authority charging itself for the works. Presumably, they will enter contracts with their contractors, which may include some incentive or penalty, but I doubt whether they will choose a similar scheme to this one. For example, I doubt whether Ipswich or Camden will say to the firm working for it on necessary roadworks, ''By the way, please give us a quote, and we will be charging you £300 a day for each day that the road is open.'' If that incentive does not work for the highway authority with its contractors, why should it work for the utilities? If I am right in thinking that half of road openings are initiated by utilities and statutory undertakers and the other half by highway authorities, we must ask why that incentive should work for one but not the other.

I am well aware that a penalty system can be more bureaucratic. If a utility company and its contractors must agree with the highway authority on how long every job will take, and then impose penalties if the job takes longer, that is a complicated business and probably worth while only in respect of larger projects, where throwing resources at a problem can sort it out quickly. I recall an occasion when three lanes of the M25 were burnt by a lorry fire and the road was

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resurfaced within 24 hours, but an exceptional effort was made in that case because the M25 is so important. In the case of roads that are important to commercial traffic or in getting people to work, and which go through residential areas, it is a dilemma whether to get the work done at night. However, in business areas, which do not have a significant residential population, where are the incentives to get the work done at night or to have 24-hour working? I hope that the Minister will respond to those issues.

 
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Prepared 10 December 2001