HC Deb 19 June 1996 vol 279 cc842-6

On resuming—

1 pm

Sir Roger Moate (Faversham)

Essentially, this is a debate about holes—millions of holes in our roads, causing delay and disruption to millions of motorists and costing the United Kingdom millions of pounds each year. It is about the digging up of our roads so that public utilities and cable companies can lay or renovate pipes or cables. According to one estimate, the resulting disruption costs £1 billion a year—and that does not include the cost to the frazzled nerves of road users, not to mention Members of Parliament.

There is ample evidence, however, that much of the dislocation is unnecessary and avoidable. Many of the holes in our roads would not be needed if Britain made fuller use of the trenchless technologies—the underground moling techniques—that are apparently used more extensively abroad. Much of the technology is, in fact, British. Why are we so slow to use it, and to insist that roads are not dug up when moling would often be quicker, cheaper and better? Should we not always be obliged to ensure that this new technology is used wherever it might be seen to be better, and to ensure that repairs and installations are tested against its availability?

Nationally, we face a massive programme of repairs to underground services. Let me shamelessly borrow a quotation from a paper prepared by Mr. Nick Taylor of Aegis Survey Consultants Ltd., which does underground survey work. He quotes Rome's water commissioner as saying: these numerous and extensive works have a natural tendency to fall into decay and must be attended to before they call for large appropriations". That was said in AD 97, but I expect the same to be true in 1997. Like, I suspect, many other hon. Members, I have encountered an increasing number of problems as a result of necessary repairs to leaking underground water pipes. The problem is acute: it is the same problem as existed in ancient Rome, but it is on an even larger scale now.

The purpose of today's debate is to try to ensure that, in future, all works are carried out, wherever it is practicable and sensible, with the use of no-dig techniques. I understand that, in 1993, of all utility installation work—I am told that it involves about 8,000 holes a day—only 5 per cent. was carried out with the use of trenchless construction methods.

There is a large and growing industry described as the no-dig industry. I have had contact with that industry through a company in my constituency called Powermole International. Some time ago, it put me in touch with the International Society for Trenchless Technology. The society has an impressive magazine called No-Dig International. There are international conferences and exhibitions, attended by a surprisingly large number of national and international companies specialising in work of this kind.

I have received information from such companies. It is remarkably interesting to learn about the fast-developing range of new technologies that are available for installing, repairing, replacing and mapping underground services; yet people still seem reluctant to use those techniques wherever possible in the United Kingdom. According to the feedback that I receive, there is still a resistance to the use of trenchless technologies, or to ensuring that work is tested against their availabilities.

According to a letter from an international company that operates in Europe, the middle east and Africa, the present levels of No Dig activities throughout these territories are currently strongest in the Middle East where micro tunnelling is an established means of installing pipelines under many of the cities and the highways … although there are several contractors in the United Kingdom who are using micro tunnelling, only about 2 per cent. of the current installation market uses such techniques. The reasons for this are probably largely down to ignorance or indifference. Let me illustrate the point from my own experience. The company that I mentioned earlier—Powermole International in Sittingbourne—produces compressed air-powered tunnel borers, ranging from very small to very large machines. I understand that the gas industry is one of the most extensive users of the technology. I shall not venture a criticism of that industry, but even it needed a gentle nudge from the local Member of Parliament to persuade it to tunnel under the busy A2 near Faversham when installing a major new pipeline across the countryside. Had it gone ahead and dug a trench across that busy road, my constituents would have suffered serious traffic hold-ups for a long time. Full marks to the gas company: it did the right thing and tunnelled—but that should have been automatic. The nudge should not have been necessary.

I saw another demonstration in Sittingbourne high street in my constituency. A gas main was replaced in a day; had the work been done by conventional means, as is so often the case, the road would have been up for a week. The same company ran two large steel tubes under the fearfully busy A249, ramming 17 metres of tubing under the road at a rate of five minutes per metre. It was done in about 85 minutes, while the massive amount of traffic that was passing overhead continued undisturbed. Conventional means would have cost five times as much, and would have brought chaos to the road.

That company is selling its products abroad, but, although they are clearly world-class products, it seems much harder for it to achieve success here in the United Kingdom. I have no doubt that other national and international companies all over Britain will tell the same story. I hope that the House will not mind my referring to the company in my constituency; I do so to illustrate the importance of the whole industry, and the need for our country to harness these resources. No doubt other hon. Members could tell the same story about companies in their constituencies.

As my hon. Friend the Minister will know, the Transport Research Laboratory commissioned a study, completed in 1993, of the potential for reducing costs resulting from the installation of utility services under our roads. The report identified the direct, indirect and social costs, and clearly spelled out the importance of reducing disruption and dislocation. I believe that it provided the figure of about £1 billion in disruption costs. I understand that it also mentioned the importance of using trenchless technology at the planning and design stages of work.

What steps have been taken since? The study suggested that the Department of Transport should ensure that highway authorities throughout the United Kingdom examined, on every occasion, the possibility of using trenchless technology.

No one is suggesting that trenchless technology is a panacea. There will be many occasions when it will not be appropriate and holes will have to be dug—it does not magically do away with the need to dig holes. It could substantially reduce disruption, however, if the utilities and highway authorities insisted on no-dig techniques where possible.

I do not think that that would require a change of legislation—indeed, I gather that I am not allowed even to call for a change of legislation in an Adjournment debate—but perhaps the Department of Transport could toughen its codes of conduct and guidelines and demand that any contractor carries out all works in a non-disruptive fashion. Perhaps a legal obligation could be placed on those who dig the road to ensure that they minimise disruption and check the best techniques.

Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister should commission a further study into progress in reducing unnecessary road digging and into the extension of the use of no-dig techniques. There are many advantages in avoiding extensive, traditional trenching, such as the prevention of immense damage to trees and plants and the cutting of roots.

Holes and trenches create road safety hazards, and, when access to premises is disrupted, interfere with commerce and industry. Vehicles that are needlessly stuck in large traffic jams cause environmental pollution. Trenchless methods do not create large quantities of spoil and backfill, so they are environmentally friendly and cleaner, and cause less dirt, dust and pollution.

Trenchless methods are perceived as more expensive. I have seen no evidence to support that and I doubt that it is true, particularly when disruption costs are taken into account. I wonder whether there is an inertia factor, because many contractors or subcontractors would prefer to use their existing equipment and labour force, but how sad it would be if Britain were to continue to operate an old-fashioned and inefficient method when the alternatives are readily available and could be used rapidly, to the great benefit of road users and the economy.

The New Roads and Street Works Act 1991 was designed to reduce unnecessary digging and to create a register. I should be grateful if the Minister would say whether the register is in operation, and, if it is, whether it is working well. If it is not, when will it be, and what do we hope it will achieve? As a result of the Act, has there been a reduction in unnecessary and repetitive road digging by the public utilities? If there has been, it is not obvious to me as a road user.

Other countries have tougher legislation. American utilities do not have the statutory rights that our companies have, and tougher legislation may prove necessary in the United Kingdom. But how much better it would be if we could encourage a change in national attitude, so that all public authorities simply and forcefully demand that preference is given to the use of trenchless technology. That will happen only if they have clear guidance from Government. We ask this not necessarily for the sake of the companies concerned, small or large—although I say, good luck to them all—but to provide a better deal for the British road user and taxpayer and for the environment.

1.13 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Steve Norris)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Sir R. Moate) for introducing what might at first glance appear to be a rarefied subject—trenchless technology—but one that is extremely important.

My hon. Friend rightly suggested that we cannot afford to ignore this issue. Trenchless technology is a generic term for techniques that essentially allow equipment to be installed or replaced under the street without breaking the surface—the no-dig concept. One example of this technology is a mole that can bore a tunnel between shafts that may be some distance from the street.

There is no doubt that such technology can be useful in reducing traffic disruption from street works. My hon. Friend rightly said that, even now, a number of industry experts believe that the full benefits or potential benefits of trenchless technology are not as well understood as they might be. That is a matter not just for the Department and local authorities but for those who sell the technology and develop it commercially.

The Department is clear that, as an alternative to open-cut trenching, trenchless methods have considerable advantages, the principal of which is that it generally costs less. For example, there is no doubt that they will be significantly less expensive for running a cable under a road—a classic application. Disruption on the surface is minimised: my hon. Friend gave a valid example from his area that could be replicated throughout the country.

Trenchless tunnelling is safer for operators and for the general public, and it improves relations between the utilities and the general public, because nothing more irritates the general public and upsets their relations with, for example, the gas or electricity boards than endless disruption of local streets.

Reduced environmental and social costs are associated with the technology. My hon. Friend gave some specific and graphic examples, and the effects of fully or partially closing a road, thereby severely restricting traffic flows, are quite serious.

There are, however, some disadvantages to trenchless technology—it is not necessarily a panacea in each case. I am advised that there are limitations on the use of the technology in certain ground conditions, and there is still the prospect of failure during operations, which can be extremely disruptive. The accuracy range of the technology is limited, and operators must be highly skilled.

The Department does not formally promote the use of the technology for street works, but disruption of the highway has become an increasingly important issue in recent years, not least because of the advent of the cable companies and the tremendous explosion in information technology that has resulted in countless new cables being laid, along with the expansion and upgrading of the sewerage system, and the supply of electricity and other services to new industrial areas.

In response, the New Roads and Street Works Act was deliberately designed to improve the co-ordination of works by local authorities, because it was felt, quite rightly, that they should be in the driving seat, if hon. Members will excuse the pun, of such development. They have an incentive to encourage undertakers to consider trenchless technology wherever possible. Specific statements to that effect appear in the 1991 Act's code of practice, in the context of traffic-sensitive streets where the avoidance of disruption is particularly relevant.

In 1989, the Transport Research Laboratory was commissioned to undertake a project on the use of trenchless technology, to indicate the extent to which it could be used to avoid road opening. The resultant report, "Trenchless Construction of Pipelines", was completed in 1993, but has not been published. It suggested that new technologies could considerably reduce the social cost of traffic delays.

My hon. Friend cited some spectacular figures, but I have no reason to disagree with his conclusions. The report's findings may supply key evidence for the use of the reserve powers in the 1991 Act or for an extension of that legislation, if that proves necessary, whereby undertakers can be charged for unduly prolonged occupation of road space.

My hon. Friend would be the first to accept that it would be difficult to require the use of a particular technology as the only one available, given the myriad number of applications under the 1991 Act. We must take account of the fact that it may be necessary on occasions to allow a different methodology. However, if the utilities are provided with a real incentive to complete work in a timely fashion and with minimum disruption—using the obvious technique of charging for unduly prolonged road occupation—that might provide a spur.

We have not yet gone that far, because there has been a considerable improvement in street works co-ordination since the introduction of the 1991 Act. When a new computerised system is implemented that will enable utilities to notify local authorities more quickly and accurately than at present—allowing them to exercise their co-ordinating role to the full—further benefits will derive from the 1991 Act.

Further support for the use of trenchless technology came from the Street Works Advisory Committee report that was submitted in July 1995. It contained the specific recommendations that highway authorities should encourage the use of trenchless technology where appropriate, and that the codes of practice published under the 1991 Act should adopt a more positive approach to technology progress. Those recommendations were accepted by the Government, so we will consider amending the codes to reinforce the value of trenchless technologies.

My hon. Friend's interest in the subject is no doubt stimulated, quite properly, by a company in his constituency, but I am grateful to him for drawing attention to the subject. There is tremendous scope for improving efficient completion of necessary works, which might bring benefits much more far-reaching than those enjoyed by utilities and local authorities.

1.26 pm

Sitting suspended.