HC Deb 18 December 2001 vol 377 cc129-30
1. Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)

What steps he is taking to minimise the disruption to road users by cable companies. [21556]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions(Ms Sally Keeble)

We are taking various measures to reduce unnecessary disruption from works carried out by utilities, including cable companies. Since April this year local authorities can charge utilities when their works overrun an agreed deadline. We are also launching pilot schemes early in the new year in Camden and Middlesbrough under which utilities will have to pay lane rental, which is a daily charge each time they dig up the roads.

Ms Drown

I thank the Minister for that reply and I appreciate that the fine and charging system will give an incentive to companies to stop dilly-dallying while they are on the roads. However, it will not stop the farcical situation that we have seen in Swindon and elsewhere in which one cable company digs up the roads, causing major disruption, and finishes, only for another company to start again 10 days later. Will the Minister agree to meet me and local government representatives to discuss how to insist on co-operation between companies, so that road disruption is minimised for our constituents?

Ms Keeble

I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend and her local authority representatives to take up the problems that she has had with cable companies and their works in Swindon, which she has highlighted repeatedly. Local authorities already have a duty under the New Road and Street Works Act 1991 to co-ordinate their street works, and the Government recognise the real problems caused by repeated digging up of the roads. Our proposals are intended exactly to address that problem.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

The hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) is right to raise that important point about street works. In fact, I had just commented to my colleagues on the Opposition Front Bench that Constitution hill seems to be being dug up for the third time this year. While we would welcome the institution of charges on cable companies or anybody else who decides to dig up the roads, does the Minister agree that under current rules nothing would prevent the companies from forwarding those charges on to their customers? Therefore, it would be no penalty and it would be the poor customers who would suffer. Will she consider changing the rules so that the penalties are real penalties for the companies, not for those using the companies' services?

Ms Keeble

At present, the main mechanism that local authorities use is charging for overrunning the deadline—109 local authorities opt for that method. The pilot schemes have not started yet and we will have to see how they work. Even if the lane rental scheme were introduced nationally immediately, the estimated cost across the country would be £109 million or more, and the regulator would wish to consider that. We also must consider the £2.5 billion—a much bigger sum—that congestion problems caused by street works cost the country.

John Cryer (Hornchurch)

Such activities by utility and cable companies cause chaos in my constituency, in the borough that I represent and across London. One has only to drive into London to see that happening, day in and day out. I welcome the system of charging that the Government have introduced, but—as my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) said—the problem is that one company digging up the street is followed by another and then another. We need new powers so that local authorities can say to those companies, "No, you cannot dig up that section of street." Is there any possibility that the Government could introduce such powers?

Ms Keeble

Under the 1991 Act, local authorities already have a duty to co-ordinate street works and we have issued best practice guidelines to encourage that to happen. It is a real issue, and the charging scheme to be introduced in Camden and Middlesbrough will help to ensure that utilities are more economic in the way in which they dig up the roads.