Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Monson: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for allowing me to intervene. Does he agree that, although the noble Lord may have to pay a little more on his water bill, he will pay less in other areas, such as reduced petrol tax going to the Exchequer through lower compensating tax rates?

Lord Brabazon of Tara: My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord is right. However, once the penalty money has been paid to the local authority, who knows where it might go then?

Secondly, I turn to the question of deciding on the proper length of time for any works. I foresee some difficulties as regards the negotiations that will obviously need to take place between the local highway authority and the utility. At the end of the day, who will take the decision on what should be an appropriate length of time? Different circumstances will apply. Roadworks tend to be noisy, so it is clearly undesirable that such works should be carried out during the night in residential areas. In non-residential areas it should be possible to work for 24 hours a day. However, certain roads are so busy--I am thinking in particular of the A3 at Hindhead, because the problem is not restricted to London--that streetworks can take

30 Jun 2000 : Column 1172

place only for a limited number of hours in the middle of the night, thus spreading them over a fairly long period of time. No doubt other circumstances can arise which I have not covered. All those factors need to be taken into account. I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about the Government's thinking in this area.

My noble friend Lord Peyton and the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, mentioned trenchless technology. I was introduced to that technology by the late Lord Nugent of Guildford, who was a great enthusiast. Ten or 12 years ago, he took me to an exhibition and demonstration of how it works. I am sorry to say that very little progress seems to have been made in the intervening period. As already explained, the technology uses a mechanical mole to drag piping or cabling under the ground, thus causing no disruption at street level. Under the provisions set out in Clause 1(3)(c) of this Bill, incentives could be offered to encourage the use of trenchless technology. I hope also that the Minister will be able to tell us that, under the regulations he can bring in under Section 74 of the 1991 Act, some form of incentive could be introduced. The noble Baroness told the House that it is an expensive process, but, my goodness, it offers enormous advantages for the road user because only small holes are dug to put the machinery in place and the remainder of the road is left undisturbed.

I shall speak briefly on my final point. A number of noble Lords have referred to the local highway authorities themselves. It is not only the utility companies which mess up the roads. In certain cases--it has happened close to where I live in London--one is filled with gloom when a notice is erected saying something along the lines of, "Roadworks: expect delays for 25 weeks". Can the Government encourage a sense of urgency in local authorities and ensure that they get on with the job? Presumably guidance will be issued to the utilities on how they should approach their work. I hope that such guidance can be extended to local highway authorities.

To close, I wish the Bill well and I look forward to hearing the Minister's response.

11.53 a.m.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, a number of noble Lords have already referred to the eloquence and wit of the noble Lord, Lord Peyton of Yeovil, when introducing this subject. It is a serious matter and, as the noble Lord said, the Government have indicated that their ears are open. I do not regard that as a particularly unusual posture for this Government. However, as regards this issue, we would be rather foolish were our ears not to be at least partly cocked to the voices ranged around the House. As the noble Baroness, Lady Park, pointed out, once those voices are combined with those of taxi drivers, it is clear that we are dealing with a popular call which the Government would be foolish to ignore.

I can assure noble Lords that we regard this as a serious matter. It can and does lead to frustration on the roads and thus the inevitable consequences

30 Jun 2000 : Column 1173

described by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas. Incidentally, with reference to the account given by the noble Baroness, Lady Park, of the taxi driver's tale of the workmen and the birthday candle, I do hope that it was not a gas hole!

Reference was made in the debate as to exactly where the responsibility lies in this area. Perhaps I may offer a little clarification. It is well known that in this matter, as in others, we operate joined-up government. My views, along with those of my noble friends Lord Sainsbury and Lord Macdonald, have been expressed on different occasions when replying to the noble Lord, Lord Peyton. I can tell noble Lords why different Ministers are called upon to reply on different occasions. Some roadworks are local highway authority works and are thus directly the responsibility of local authorities, overseen by my department. Responsibility for the licensing arrangements governing works undertaken by the majority of utility and cable companies rests with the Department of Trade and Industry. However, the water industry is also a matter in which my department has an interest. I hope that clarifies, at least in part, the departmental responsibilities.

It will be clear to noble Lords that a balance needs to be maintained between the transport and traffic disruption aspect and the need to ensure that we maintain uninterrupted supplies of gas, electricity and water, as well as gaining the benefits of the new technologies being introduced in telecommunications--a point that has been made on previous occasions by my noble friend Lord Sainsbury. Inevitably this leads to a need to dig up the roads. Indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, said, in the case of water, there is a clear and important need to improve the quality of water pipework in central London. Furthermore, in terms of telecommunications, we have seen an explosion in the growth of telecoms companies. Most business premises in London require ever greater access to new cabling. We must recognise that benefits accrue to the community through streetworks, as well as disbenefits in terms of irritating delays in traffic flow.

On several occasions noble Lords have spoken of the high level of disruption caused by works on behalf of telecommunications companies. Interestingly, although earlier in the year a significant proportion of central London appeared to have been dug up by the cable companies, when I checked Westminster City Council's streetworks list for this week, I found that the balance is now rather different. Of the 18 or so major schemes on traffic-sensitive streets, five are concerned with the local authority's own activities, seven are the responsibility of Transco, the gas supplier, two concern electricity, two concern telecommunications and one is the result of a major construction project along the lines described by the noble Lord, Lord Monson. I believe that that list demonstrates how the balance is now moving away from such an emphasis on telecommunications works.

However, as my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington pointed out, a significant number of the companies licensed to operate roadworks under the code of practice and with due notification are

30 Jun 2000 : Column 1174

telecommunications companies. Of the 145 different organisations registered nationwide, 93 of them are telecommunications licensees. However, as regards the traditional utilities, usually only one company can carry out such works in a given area. However, in terms of new competition and the liberalisation of communications, I am sure that most noble Lords would agree that it is important to retain a reasonably open licensing system. Nevertheless, we are aware that the benefits of open competition must be balanced against the disbenefits of needing to issue a large number of licences.

We recognise the difficulties of this situation. At the turn of the year we engaged in a consultation that was completed in late January or early February. The consultation covered two options: first, to consider the use of the existing powers conferred by Section 74 of the 1991 Act; secondly, to consider implementing a lane rental scheme along the lines of that set out in the noble Lord's Bill. On 5th April, during the short debate on an Unstarred Question tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, my noble friend Lord Sainsbury announced that we would press ahead with the option to charge utilities for over-staying. Since 5th April, the highways authorities and utilities have been working with the department, and the set of regulations that will be required to trigger that section will be produced by the end of this month, as was indicated a few days ago by my noble friend Lord Macdonald. The intention is that those orders will be laid before the House for debate in the autumn, and, it is to be hoped, before the end of this parliamentary Session. That is the timetable.

The Section 74 power relates to over-staying. It will in effect be a penalty for inefficiency or for over-staying the time agreed with the highways authorities. It will not be a "from day one" cost. We are therefore giving ourselves indentures, and the House will be asked to approve the provision when we return in the autumn.

This is not, however, all that is going on. In parallel, we are trying to encourage best practice in roads and street works by the highways authorities as well as by the utility companies. Just last week, we saw an example of that kind of initiative. To use its own title, "Making Street Works Work" has been put together by the Central London Partnership. I know that the regard of the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, for the word "co-ordination" is slightly metaphysical in this context, but this is co-ordination actually in progress. It draws in most of the central London local authorities and the 25 utilities with the power to engage in street works. My colleague, Keith Hill, has brought the authorities together in that partnership, and the outcome will be to improve the position in central London. We believe that more co-ordination between highways authorities, the utilities and others is possible. The noble Lord, Lord Levene, intervened in the previous debate to indicate what the City of London has done. Reference was also made by the noble Lord, Lord Monson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, to trenchless technology, which is being encouraged in the City scheme.

30 Jun 2000 : Column 1175

There are certainly substantial technological possibilities. Techniques for laying cables and pipes, including re-lining old pipes without having to dig full-length trenches, are being developed by utilities across the country and are encouraged by the codes of practice. These methods are, of course, more expensive than traditional ways of digging up roads. The techniques can, however, be further developed. Were we to go down either the road suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, in his Bill, or that of imposing charges on overstay by the triggering of Section 74, the relative economics might well improve and, therefore, trenchless activity might be the optimal solution in far more circumstances--and we should not, therefore, have the cost and logistical problems referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, in the encouragement of trenchless technology.

Meanwhile, there are standing instructions as to how this work can be carried out. The local authorities have some powers in this area in terms of enforcement, quality control and of requiring notification and requiring making good. The code of practice which applies to the local authorities, which is in a "Pink Book" to which I have had previous occasion to refer in this House. There is also an equivalent "Blue Book" dealing with the utilities' responsibilities in these areas. I accept that not always are they observed as well as they should be. Certainly the greater attention to this by both the department and my colleagues in the DTI and the local authorities will ensure that some of the failure to observe all the terms of those codes of practice should be addressed more forcefully and robustly in future--for example, the fact that there is no requirement for road works to indicate who is ultimately responsible, or in some cases even the name of the contractor and a telephone number for complaints, all of which should be required under the code of practice.

However, co-ordination is improving. I have talked about the provisions in central London. What is important is a determined willingness on the part of the utilities companies. The noble Lord, Lord Peyton, may have been concerned that he did not receive much impression of movement in the letter to which he referred. Certainly, our experience in recent weeks of bringing the companies together in the Central London Partnership and in working together on the regulations for Section 74, is that the utilities are aware of the need to move in this area. Indeed, there is also some economic and logistical pressure for companies to co-operate. Work on one of the holes in the road outside this House to which noble Lords made reference was a good example, in that no fewer than five cable companies were using the same hole at the same time. If we could encourage that to apply across the board, the amount of disruption would be significantly less.

That is the background. In relation to the specifics of the Bill, clearly the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, is moving to full lane rental. As the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, said, it has worked well in terms of maintenance

30 Jun 2000 : Column 1176

subcontracting on the inter-urban highway agency network. In this context, there are a number of points in favour of that approach. It could provide an incentive to earlier completion of the works, to the sharing of trenches and to more effective co-ordination. It should also provide a lever to utilities finding more efficient, less disruptive, more technologically advanced ways of carrying out their work, and it could also generate more revenue for local authorities, at least if it was prior to all the efficiency gains being made, than would the Section 74 provisions.

Against that, there is the problem of the additional cost to the utilities. Some of that cost could be significantly offset by less disruptive techniques and more co-ordination. But inevitably, as the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, indicated, some of that cost would be passed on to domestic and commercial consumers, particularly the utilities' costs, where there is relatively little competition; in the area of cable, there is more competition to keep costs down, but nevertheless there are costs that could be passed on. Therefore, we must achieve a balance between the interests of road users and residents who are inconvenienced by the works and the interests of the customers (who are often the same people) of the utilities and cable facilities.

We are not necessarily saying that we should oppose lane rental. Indeed, in my view, we might well need the whole range of options to tackle this problem sufficiently. What we are saying, however, is that we can immediately use the legislation which, thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, is already on the statute book, and we are moving as rapidly as the process allows to put that provision in place.

The Bill would rule out that option. It deals only with full lane rental. We may well wish to look at full lane rental, particularly after we have seen how well the Section 74 provision works. But it would be a major incentive in itself to hurry up and co-ordinate on these holes in the ground and we already have the legislation to do so. To replace that provision completely, as the Bill as currently drafted would do, would mean that the Section 74 provisions would fall. That is the reason why, despite my deep sympathy with the noble Lord's intentions, and recognising that we may need the power as an additional power at some later date, I could not support the Bill in its present form. No doubt at future stages of the Bill, and indeed in discussions on the Transport Bill, we shall return to this matter. We are pressing ahead with the decisions that we have already announced. I have set out the timetable and who is responsible. I am sure that noble Lords will wish to support the Government in that respect. For the moment, I cannot give my full-hearted support to the Bill; however, I very much share his intentions and those of all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate, and I am sure many more besides.

12.9 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, I should like to begin my brief remarks by saying that the noble Lord who has replied to the debate and who is responsible for this matter on behalf of the Government has a

30 Jun 2000 : Column 1177

beguiling way of, first of all, listening, and then, in the course of his reply, referring to what has been said. Not all of his colleagues do that. It sweeps me off my feet with admiration, which is probably only temporary. Nevertheless, for the moment, he leaves me almost, but not quite, speechless.

I should have explained at the beginning that the Bill is a measure to charge licensees £1,000 per day or part of a day that they occupy any road, street or piece of road or street. It is a not a Bill that I would go to the stake for; far from it. However, I hope that in due course it will receive its Third Reading and be passed by your Lordships' House. It is intended as a warning, a prod, to substitute action for the totally static lack of progress that we have been enduring for some time.

I am very grateful for what the noble Lord was kind enough to say about my remarks. In his speech he referred to "co-ordination", using the word several times. He said that co-ordination is in progress. That is wonderful news. However, we shall need evidence before too long that it is happening. The noble Lord also said that co-ordination is improving. Again, that is something that we are very pleased to hear. He used a string of adjectives. I noted them and was greatly impressed by them: "forcefully", "robustly", "rapidly". Those words were music to my ears. I hope that the noble Lord will continue to sing from that hymn sheet.

I do not want to detain your Lordships, but I cannot refrain mentioning that the idea of five cable companies sharing one hole must be an almost unsurpassed example of neighbourliness. One can only hope that that sort of harmony will continue in the future.

I should like to say one word to my noble friends on the Front Bench. I do not always thank them very much, but I do so today. I particularly thank my noble friend Lord Brabazon of Tara for the support and encouragement he has given me throughout this operation. I should also like in his absence--I hope without embarrassing him--to express my gratitude to the Government Chief Whip for his sympathetic approach to my problem, which was finding the time for your Lordships' House to consider this Bill.

I am extremely grateful to all of your Lordships who have taken part in the debate and am most touched by what noble Lords have been kind enough to say about the efforts I have made to draw attention to what I think is a serious problem.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page