HC Deb 22 May 1991 vol 191 cc996-1002

'.—(1) The Secretary of State may make provision by regulations requiring an undertaker executing street works in a maintainable highway to pay a charge to the highway authority where—

  1. (a) the duration of the works exceeds such period as may be prescribed, and
  2. (b) the works are not completed within a reasonable period.

(2) For this purpose "a reasonable period" means such period as is agreed by the authority and the undertaker to be reasonable or, in default of such agreement, is determined by arbitration to be reasonable, for completion of the works in question.

In default of agreement, the authority's view as to what is a reasonable period shall be acted upon pending the decision of the arbitrator.

(3) The regulations may provide that if an undertaker has reason to believe that the duration of works will exceed the prescribed period he may submit to the authority an estimate of their likely duration—

  1. (a) in the case of works in connection with the initial placing of apparatus in the street in pursuance of a street works licence, together with his application for the licence,
  2. (b) in the case of other works (not being emergency works), together with his notice under section 51 (notice of starting date), or
  3. (c) in the case of emergency works, as soon as reasonably practicable after the works are begun,
and that the period stated in an estimate so submitted shall be taken to be agreed by the authority to be reasonable unless they give notice, in such manner and within such period as may be prescribed, objecting to the estimate.

(4) The regulations may also provide that if it appears to the undertaker that by reason of matters not previously foreseen or reasonably foreseeable the duration of the works—

  1. (a) is likely to exceed the prescribed period,
  2. (b) is likely to exceed the period stated in his previous estimate, or
  3. (c) is likely to exceed the period previously agreed or determined to be a reasonable period,
he may submit an estimate or revised estimate accordingly, and that if he does so any previous estimate, agreement or determination shall cease to have effect and the period stated in the new estimate shall be taken to be agreed by the authority to be reasonable unless they give notice, in such manner and within such period as may be prescribed, objecting to the estimate.

(5) The amount of the charge shall be determined in such manner as may be prescribed by reference to the time taken to complete the works and the extent to which the surface of the highway is affected by the works.

Different rates of charge may be prescribed according to the place and time at which the works are executed and such other factors as appear to the Secretary of State to be relevant.

(6) The regulations may make provision as to the time and manner of making payment of any charge.

(7) The regulations shall provide that a highway authority may reduce the amount, or waive payment, of a charge in any particular case, in such classes of case as they may decide or as may be prescribed, or generally.

(8) The first regulations for the purposes of this section shall not be made unless a draft of them has been laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament; subsequent regulations shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.'. —[Mr. Freeman.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Freeman

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I understand that it will be convenient also to discuss the following: Government amendment No. 53.

Government new clause 11—Charge for occupation of the road where works unreasonably prolonged.

Government amendments Nos. 109, 66, 67, 69 and 110.

Mr. Freeman

We have now moved from toll roads to the street works portion of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Minister for Roads and Traffic will deal with some of the amendments but, with your agreement, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall deal with the first group.

New clause 7 represents the fulfilment of a commitment made in Committee to think again about the basis of charging for occupation of the road by statutory undertakers. It represents a major change and I have, as promised, consulted representatives of local authorities and the statutory undertakers since the Committee stage. I hope that the new clause and the related amendments will commend themselves to the House.

I shall explain as briefly but as accurately as I can the purpose of the new clause. First, it is designed as a permissive power. That means that the Secretary of State would bring into force by way of regulation and subject to affirmative resolution the power for highway authorities to charge for the occupation of roads only if he was convinced that it was necessary because there was an abuse. I think that we all want to expedite street works. We do not want roads to be dug up for longer than necessary.

The second important point is that the payment to the highway authorities made by those undertaking street works would be stipulated as maximum charges. There would be the opportunity to waive or to reduce the charges if that seemed sensible—for example, because they were too small or because there were circumstances in which it was not sensible to pursue the matter. That would be for the judgment of the highway authorities. However, the payment would be made only after a minimum free period which could be, for example, a week—I use that period only for illustrative purposes—so that all street works, whether they are to dig up and repair a gas main, to lay cable television or to allow British Telecom to put in new works for telephone subscribers, would be covered by the same blanket minimum free period to be prescribed in regulations.

Payment would start clocking up only on a per diem basis and perhaps on the basis of the extent to which the road was blocked, after the expiration of a reasonable period. That period which would have to be agreed between the highway authority and the statutory undertaker would clearly have to be greater than the minimum period. However, once the undertaker exceeded that reasonable period, he would be liable for a charge. The basis for the maximum charge would be set out in regulations made by the Secretary of State if he were so minded and if there were evidence of continued abuse.

Concern was expressed in Committee that we did not want all the statutory undertakers—the utilities and those that have a statutory right to dig up the road—to be clobbered for the excesses, misdemeanours or laggardliness of one or two. This mechanism means that the charge would be borne by the statutory undertaker responsible for the execessive delay and would not be a burden imposed on all which would be implied by a daily charge.

The provision also covers skips in the road and scaffolding. How often have we seen scaffolding or builders' skips left unnecessarily for long periods on the roads—in traffic sensitive or non-traffic sensitive streets—merely because the contractor or the builder had either forgotten about them or found it convenient to park them on the public road or footway. We do not want that to happen unnecessarily and new clause 7 catches both examples.

We want a powerful incentive for those who dig up the road or who have works on the road—the carriageway or the footway—to carry out those works as expeditiously as possible. We do not want to place a burden on all utilities—and hence on their customers—for all their work, some which will inevitably take some time and where a reasonable period can be agreed.

Ms. Ruddock

We are dealing with the street works part of the Bill, which is the part on which we have been able to proceed with the most harmony. However, there were some sticking points and the clause that the Government seek to amend by introducing new clause 7 was one of the major difficulties encountered in Committee.

It falls to me to congratulate the Minister on listening so well to the issues that were raised in our debates and on consulting—as I know that he has—in some depth with the local authority associations and with the utilities. Our concerns and, as I understand it, those of the local authority associations and of the utilities are met in new clause 7 and the consequent amendments. We are happy to support the new clause and the amendments. They achieve what we have sought all along—to make it clear that there is only a reserve power.

I have only a few questions that seek assurances from the Minister on behalf of the local authority associations. They are concerned that the charging relief will be implemented only if the other anti-congestion elements of the Bill are shown not to be working. The Minister has suggested that, but it would be useful if he could clearly confirm it and put it on the record. Will the Department of Transport consult with the joint highway authorities utilities committee on any decision to implement the clause and on the detail of the regulations to be made?

Will the Government work to ensure that the charging regime, if it has to be administered, is as easy to administer as possible? If the charges are introduced, will they be set at a level which will at least enable the highway authorities to recover any costs they incur in administering the scheme?

If the Minister is able to respond to those few points, Labour Members will be more than satisfied.

Sir Peter Maker (Blackpool, South)

I declare an interest as chairman of a cable television company.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock) spoke in the way that she did. There is harmony on both sides of the House about the merits of clause 70. As the hon. Lady said, the clause caused concern in Committee, as it did to the utilities, the Cable Television Association and to the highway authorities. They all support the Bill and they understand the purpose of clause 70, but as my hon. Friend the Minister said, it punishes the class for the misdemeanours of one or two of its members and that is especially relevant to the cable television industry which is at the beginning of a long programme of cable laying in the ground. That has to be done for understandable environmental reasons. The great danger of the clause as it stood was that it would endanger investment in the cable television industry.

The utilities, the cable television industry and the highways authorities are happy with the new clause because it provides the incentive to those who dig up streets to behave properly and provides no disincentive to investment.

I add to the tribute paid by the hon. Member for Deptford to the Minister. In particular, the way in which he conducted the debates in Committee on this part of the Bill was a model of the way in which such proceedings should be conducted.

Mr. Simon Coombs (Swindon)

In welcoming the new clause, I declare an interest as a consultant to British Telecom.

The new clause has achieved in a straightforward and helpful manner all that was asked of my hon. Friend the Minister in Committee and in meetings outside. There were plenty of them and he listened attentively and took a constructive attitude. I thank him for that.

The new clause has confirmed what the utilities in particular were seeking, which is that the power in the new clause should be a reserve power only, that the scheme will be essentially a charge for dilatory work rather than a broad rental fee and that free periods, when no charges are payable, will be prescribed. That was the heart of what was sought and it is at the heart of the new clause. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for the help that he has given.

It will be a much simpler scheme to administer than the one previously proposed. The administrative complications of the previous scheme would have got us all into a great deal of trouble. It would have taken time and would have been costly to implement. The system in the new clause should come into effect only on relatively rare occasions when undertakings have failed to live up to the commitments that they have made to the street authority.

7.45 pm

I hope that undertakings will make doubly sure that they do not bring down on themselves the need for the implementation of the new clause. It is in their own hands to ensure that they are not faced with additional difficulties.

In Committee, we perhaps did not pay sufficient attention to the other side of the coin—the interests of road users. We considered the position of utilities and tried to ensure that their interests would be looked after as far as was possible. It is important to emphasise, however, that at no stage have hon. Members lost sight of the fact that one of the cardinal principles of the Bill is to ensure that road users have an easier right of passage along the roads of this country than has hitherto been the case, because of street works continuing for too long at the end of which the quality of the road is often impaired.

I and other hon. Members who I believe speak for road users recognise that the new clause is a strong weapon to use against an undertaking which fails to consider the interests of road users by not attempting to remove itself from a road with the minimum possible delay. It is right that we should insist that the new clause, like the clause that it replaces, ensures that road users are inconvenienced as little as possible. The proposal to introduce charges for failure to achieve rather than charges for merely being on the road at all is not a diminution of our determination to ensure that road users are able to use roads uninterrupted by the activities of undertakers.

With that point made clear, I give a warm welcome to the new clause.

Mr. Martin M. Brandon-Bravo (Nottingham, South)

I apologise to my hon. Friend the Minister for having only recently entered the Chamber. I am sure that he will realise that I should have been delighted to be more involved, having tried unsuccessfully to take a small private Bill through the House which impinged slightly on the matters before us.

New clause 7 and the amendments to schedule 8 seem —forgive me if I am wrong—to concentrate solely on charges. I support that; it is an admirable move. However, will the power to make provision by regulations enable the Secretary of State under schedule 8 to deal with a code of practice that might cover some of the safety factors that arise when, for example, skips are left on the road?

In the past few years, in my constituency, skips have been left on the public highway as a result of street works, sometimes with no lighting or reflectors, and that has led to one or two nasty accidents. Responsibility for that tends to be shuffled around. The same applies to large holes in the road which result from street works. I have had constituents who do not know whether to claim compensation from the contractor, the local authority or the Ministry of Transport. Will the Minister explain whether the regulations in schedule 8 deal with such a situation and whether, in the broader context, the schedule states whether there should be road signs ahead of a skip left on the road? It is a little late when one comes round the corner and finds that there is a skip in the road, so prior warning is needed.

I have been unable to find the necessary provision in the schedule, but am happy to be told that I am wrong. Will my hon. Friend the Minister of State deal with safety aspects when skips are left on the highway for any length of time?

Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)

May I add my thanks to the Minister for his reasonable reaction to questions and criticisms of various aspects of this part of the Bill? I declare an interest as a parliamentary consultant to Seeboard. In this instance, I should thank Seeboard for educating me on the points that should be raised at this stage.

Will my hon. Friend the Minster give me an assurance on clause 91 which, although not presently under discussion, is related to the debate? It deals with statutory defences and the related question of prosecutions. I understand that my hon. Friend the Minister's officials have had meetings with legal representatives and that they have agreed that clause 91, as it relates to this discussion, is perfectly acceptable, and that points of confusion that need clarification can be explained in relevant codes of practice or through drafting amendments to defence provisions.

Will the Minister reassure me on those issues? I thank him, once again, for introducing the new clause.

Mr. Freeman

I am grateful for the comments on the way in which the Department of Transport has met concerns. The credit is entirely due to civil servants in the Department who have sought to respond to points raised in the Committee and subsequently. Nevertheless, I am grateful for the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Sir P. Blaker) and my hon. Friends the Members for Swindon, (Mr. Coombs), for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo) and for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone).

I give assurances to the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock) on the four points that she raised. She need have no fear about any ambiguity.

Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South and I could correspond about the problem of skips. Section 139 of the Highways Act 1980 already deals with the guarding and lighting of skips. I assure my hon. Friend that the voluminous codes of practice and guidance which will issue forth from the Bill and which will be the direct responsibility of my hon. Friend the Minister for Roads and Traffic will, as far as possible, deal with the points that my hon. Friend raised. He sought to raise his concerns and those of his constituents about unlit and ill-placed skips and scaffolding. That is one of the reasons why I am grateful for his support on the new clause. We seek to have a financial penalty imposed on those who disregard common sense when expediting their work.

I can give my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes the assurances that he sought. We have had long and detailed negotiations with the Highways and Utilities Committee which, although it was not satisfied with the outcome of all of our discussions, was satisfied with most of the key issues. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes for remiding me of that procedure. May I tell HAUC, through my hon. Friend, that if it wishes to have further clarification—not on the Bill, which I hope will complete its pasage tonight—I should be glad to respond.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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