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Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, I should like to say how touched I was by the generous remarks with which the noble Lord opened his speech. Not all Ministers either listen very carefully or are subsequently prepared to admit that they were wrong and change course and then very generously to give the credit to a political opponent. The noble Lord did so, and I am grateful to him.

In thanking the Minister, I hope that for as long as the noble Lord remains in his post, the powers that the Government are taking will not end up as another battery of guns which are for ever silent.

What justification is there for allowing approximately 138 companies to dig holes in the road more or less at their convenience and with not the slightest regard--indeed, they have a contemptuous disregard--for the interests of others who have every right to use the road? The present arrangements allow that legion of people to stake out their territories with cones, rather like wild animals. Of course, they do use cones, rather than the methods of the jungle. It seems to me that they are over-privileged.

The process allows those operators not merely to stake out their territories, but to come back at their convenience and dig a hole, leaving it untenanted and unoccupied, and to return when pressure of other things allows. They do what they have to do in the hole, fill it up and before they leave, carry out very inadequate repairs. The only excuse for that casual conduct is that as soon as they finish, someone else will dig up the same road for a quite different purpose.

This good cause has been neglected by the media in general, but Mr Freeman of the Evening Standard has pursued zealously a well-justified campaign. He called attention to the disgusting state of Regent Street, occasioned simply by the amount of space cordoned off for these operations and the litter and filth which accumulated as a result.

I quote from an article of 10th April in the Evening Standard which stated:

I do not want to single out one company in particular, but Transco seems to be a regular, very consistent and rather ungracious offender, although it must be said in its defence that when someone from the Evening Standard rang it up and said, "You've got a

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hole which you are not attending to", someone did come running along the next day to fill it in. But that should not have been necessary.

I rather wonder about this. Transco is, or was, a subsidiary of a creature called British Gas, which has now ceased to exist, I believe, in all but name. Transco is owned by a firm called Lattice Group, which resides in Jermyn Street. I wonder whether the chairman, Mr John Parker--the time has come to mention a few names--is really aware of the indignation, inconvenience and annoyance for which he or his company is responsible. I hope that he will learn some lessons before too long.

I have continued to press this matter for a good year now because I have been rather shocked by the way in which offenders seem to have little regret and no remorse or even concern about the inconvenience that they cause to others.

One must be concerned also about subcontractors who seem only too often to be a law unto themselves and their principals do not consider themselves in any way responsible for the way in which they conduct their affairs. I very much hope that the Minister's forceful character will make it clear to principals that they are responsible and answerable for what their subcontractors do. There is no possible excuse for letting them get away with the cavalier behaviour for which they are so often responsible.

I turn now briefly to highway authorities and in that bracket, for the moment, I include the Highways Agency. Those are the authorities upon which we are dependent generally for keeping our highways for the purpose for which they were originally intended, but which is often forgotten; namely, movement. The fact that highways were originally constructed for movement seems to be largely forgotten by, of all people, highways authorities which prolong their activities for operations which are quite often minor and trivial, but they go on for weeks, attended to by one or two men. There is no urgency about it. There is absolutely no sense of concern about the inconvenience caused to the public.

I hope that the noble Lord will undertake to address some very sharp words and advice to those upon whom he is going to rely to make his policies effective, those policies which we shall certainly approve today.

I cannot resist the temptation to mention Westminster Bridge. What has happened in regard to Westminster Bridge must have aroused the envy of all those who wish to disrupt and upset ordinary human commerce. I asked the Minister about this matter, but he was quite unable to answer for reasons with which I sympathise. But I should not mind having a bet with him that over the past five years or so there has been practically no days at all when all the lanes on Westminster Bridge, and the access roads to the bridge, were available to ordinary traffic. That is an absolute scandal.

When the very long bridge in San Francisco was upset by an earthquake, the Americans got it open again in months. It took three years or more to strengthen Westminster Bridge. They could have

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pulled the whole damn thing down and rebuilt it in less than that time if there were even a remote measure of competence.

I have the gravest doubts about the competence, will and resolution of highway authorities. I hope that the Minister will do his best to set them on the course for improvement. Heaven knows, they can hardly get worse.

The Government can be absolutely sure of support on this. I hope that they will not under-rate--I am sure they do not--the immense forces of inertia which they are against on the part of utilities which, so far, have shown nothing but determination to continue to enjoy unjustified privileges.

I pay tribute to, among others, the RAC which has been extremely persistent in pressing this case upon the Government. I should like to quote from a letter which it wrote to me the other day which stated:

    "The number of utility street works are most noticeable in central London around the Palace of Westminster at present time. Parliament Square has been chaos for most of the summer, along with St James' and Piccadilly. Extensive working is being undertaken around Northumberland Avenue and Old Palace Yard. Due to work on Westminster Bridge traffic is being forced into one lane of traffic at either side. Similarly, considerable work is being undertaken along Birdcage Walk".

We are left with hardly a patch of this part of London untouched. If there is, that must be because its existence has just been ignored.

I do not want to trespass further upon your Lordships' time. But I have three particular worries. First, in the amendment which the Minister moved, he has been loyal to the draftsman and left in the word "may" as opposed to "shall". I should be very much happier to see the amendment read that the Secretary of State "shall" make provision instead of the rather humble and lame-sounding "may". But I hope that the spirit of the noble Lord will be sufficient to give that word "may" rather more of an imperative smack.

My second point is to express some regret that the lane rental power will not be used unless and until the other measures seem insufficient. In present circumstances, and having regard to the record of the people who have caused this trouble regularly, I believe that the noble Lord will be well advised to bring out all his forces now, aim them at those who really deserve to be shot at, and conduct an operation with all the means at his disposal in order to make sure of the result.

My third concern is that the paralysis which comes of having too many people involved and no one responsible may come oozing out and swamp the Government's present good intentions. The result would then be to buttress and give fresh life to the incompetence, ill manners and abuse of privilege which has been such a nuisance on the roads and streets not just of London but of this country as a whole for far too long.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I compliment my noble friend for having listened to the representations that have been made. In no way do I cast any aspersions upon the noble Lord who has been a friend

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of mine for many years. However, my noble friend has learned a superb lesson in regard to listening to the concerns of this House. We have had the experience not only of the theories, but of the day-to-day practical concerns as regards this matter. I thank my noble friend for having listened carefully to the representations that have been made by the noble Lord, Lord Peyton.

I apologise that, as a result of my stroke, sometimes I become rather muddled. However, I am not muddled about one thing: the experience of every person who has come before my noble friend has been taken into account and I thank him from the bottom of my heart.

Lord Monson: My Lords, as someone who has previously spoken out in favour of just such a move, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Peyton of Yeovil, for his insistence, and like the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, I congratulate the Government on being open-minded enough to listen to the arguments and to accept them in such a constructive manner. These amendments are extremely worth while and will be widely welcomed by the public at large.

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