HC Deb 20 June 1984 vol 62 cc383-6
Mr. Home Robertson

I beg to move amendment No.117, in page 33, line 39, at end insert 'including conditions requiring public undertakers to co-ordinate their works in relation to services under, over or adjacent to public roads for the purpose of minimising the disruption of such roads.'.

The First Deputy Chairman

With this it will be convenient to take the following:

Amendment No. 118, in page 34, line 8, leave out subsection (3).

New clause 8—Consultation on road repairs'It will be the duty of highway authorities to consult recognised motoring and transport organisations as to the planning of repairs and improvement works of trunk roads in order to keep lane closures to an acceptable minimum.'.

Mr. Home Robertson

The clause as drafted provides for control over works and excavations. This being a consolidation measure, this is simply harking back to existing controls which are supposed to apply to excavations affecting roads. Those conditions are not working, which is why I and my hon. Friends have tabled amendment No. 117. It will enable local roads authorities to impose the conditions referred to in clause 54 and also to require public undertakers to co-ordinate their works in relation to services under, over or adjacent to public roads for the purpose of minimising the disruption of such roads. The term "public undertakers" always causes amusement. I understand that it applies to those public bodies and nationalised industries which supply services; for example, to British Telecom, water authorities, electricity and gas boards and other bodies which have pipes and cables to be laid under or adjacent to roads.

There is much reason for dissatisfaction over the way in which these works are co-ordinated nowadays. How often have hon. Members come across the most ludicrous succession of events in our constituencies where, for the sake of argument, the regional council first digs up the road to replace a drain. That blocks the traffic and makes a mess, and is noisy. The council reinstates the road, after a fashion, and may come back to reinstate the road properly and paint the white lines on top of it. Then, say, the gas board decides to relay its mains under exactly the same section of road. It repeats the whole palaver. Next, the telephone people or the authority that is responsible for installing water mains comes along and does exactly the same thing.

It can happen that a particular stretch of road in a particular town is dug up repeatedly for months on end. We have all come across such situations. They are completely unnecessary. If there were a proper consultation procedure and the local roads authority had the power to knock together the heads of the other authorities and say to them, "Look, if you are going to dig up that road, you can all go in there together and put your pipes, cables or ducts into the same section of road, co-ordinate repairs and replacements and minimise costs to public bodies," that would minimise disruption to the roads and nuisance to residents and road users.

I recognise that it may not be as easy as that. Nevertheless, all hon. Members have come across cases in which such a repeat performance of digging up roads could have been avoided if co-ordination had been imposed by the roads authority. Amendment No. 117 will empower roads authorities to impose conditions requiring these bodies to co-ordinate their works in relation to services under, over or adjacent to public roads. It is not an unreasonable request and I hope that the Minister will feel able to reply to it.

Mr. Maxton

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Home Robertson

: My hon. Friend will get his chance in a wee minute.

It does not seem to be an unreasonable suggestion and would command widespread support, certainly among the population of Scotland and also, I suspect, among local roads authorities. They must be exasperated sometimes at the sight of their roads being dug up time and again by other authorities.

Amendment No. 118 concerns subsection (3). It simply takes out the provision which I hope will be made redundant by amendment No. 117. It takes out a reference to excavations to which the streets works code, as contained in the Public Utilities Street Works Act 1950, applies". Experience shows that the so-called street works code is not working in far too many instances. The local roads authorities need additional powers to overcome this problem, which is serious. I hope that the Committee will consider my suggestion seriously.

Sir Hector Munro

I rehearsed all the arguments earlier about the inefficiency, in the view of many hon. Members, in the co-ordination of repairs on the A74. The hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) also referred to statutory undertakers. Perhaps the Minister will see that things get better rather than worse.

Mr. David Marshall

I support amendment No. 118, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson).

I understand that subsection (3) means that the roads authority has no control over the operation of public utilities and no power to ensure that road surfaces damaged by public utilities are adequately repaired. Is the Minister aware that in one metropolitan county, for example, there are more than 80,000 road openings per year? How many must there be in a large authority such as Strathclyde?

I also understand that the Secretary of State for Transport has ordered an analysis of the considerable amount of information available on the need to control the activities of public utilities as they affect roads. As it will probably be some time before a report is available, would it not be desirable to take the powers now to tackle the problem so that action can be taken accordingly as soon as recommendations are made? Does the Minister agree that clause 54 should also apply to public utilities? Will he therefore agree to delete subsection (3)?

Mr. Bill Walker

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Munro). I also support the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson), which might surprise him, in almost all that he said about amendment No. 117.

On many occasions, all of us have found it disturbing that the same parts of the same streets have been dug up many times and caused obstructions to the travelling public. Over a long period of time there has been a lack of co-ordination between the various public utility organisations and, I am sorry to say, between the authorities that are carrying out the work and people in motoring organisations and others, who find that the roads cannot be used for various activities.

Therefore, the amendments should be considered seriously by my hon. Friend the Minister.

Mr. Maxton

I am glad that the Conservative Benches are beginning to fill up. I assume that Conservative Members are interested in the amendment and will support it if the Minister says that he is not prepared to accept it.

I am disappointed that the hon. Member for Renfrew, West and Inverclyde (Mrs. McCurley) is not present, because she made considerable play of this matter during an intervention on Second Reading and earlier this evening. It would have been more responsible of her if she had been present and given her support.

I support the amendments because, time and again, after public bodies dig up a road, along comes someone to repair it, and two days later another public body comes along and digs up the same part of the road. That is not good enough. It is time that we had a way in which we can ensure proper control.

Sometimes private bodies also dig up the roads. I remind the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) that not only public, but private, bodies do it.

Mr. Craigen

And British Telecom will, shortly.

Mr. Maxton

That is right. British Telecom will probably be much less responsible when it is privatised that when it was a public body. There is a need for co-ordination to ensure minimal disruption to members of the public.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Michael Ancram)

I appreciate the points that have been made about amendments Nos. 117 and 118. At one time or another, all of us must have experienced the problems in our own constituencies and near our homes when the same stretch of road that was opened up by the gas board one month and just put down again is opened up by the electricity board the next month.

As the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) said, statutory undertakers have a legal right to lay their apparatus in public roads and to inspect and maintain it. In addition, their roadworks are controlled by the codes of practice contained in the Act to which he referred. He must appreciate, as I hope other hon. Members will, that the Public Utilities Street Works Act 1950 applies throughout Great Britain. The Government are well aware that since 1950 traffic has increased and that there is a need to review the effectiveness of the codes of practice and the agreements between the public utilities and local roads authorities about the standards of reinstatement.

It being Ten o'clock, The CHAIRMAN left the Chair to report Progress and ask leave to sit again.

Committee report Progress.