HL Deb 09 February 1990 vol 515 cc1029-31

11.20 a.m.

Lord St. John of Fawsley asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their policy on statutory undertakers who dig up the highways.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, the powers of statutory undertakers to break open the highway are governed by the street works code in the Public Utilities Street Works Act 1950. The Government accept that the arrangements for utility street works are in need of reform and have said that they intend to bring forward new legislation to implement the main recommendations of the Horne Report, Roads and the Utilities. A Bill based on proposals contained in a consultation paper issued last May will be introduced as soon as a suitable opportunity can be found.

Lord St. John of Fawsley

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that helpful Answer. Is he aware that the streets of many of our great cities, especially London, now resemble battlefields and that the residents are continually tormented by the chatter and vibration of electric drills? Should not companies such as Westminster Cable Television, which are profiting from the use of the public highway, make a contribution towards the costs incurred? Further, should there not be a duty on them to restore the highway to its former condition?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, times have changed since 1950 and the law is in need of reform. Cable television companies require a licence under the Telecommunications Act which makes them subject to the same street works code in the 1950 Act. Thus cable television companies are required to meet the same conditions as any statutory undertaker when excavating in the streets. For example, before digging up a street they must serve notice on the highway authority and the utilities which may be affected, and for major works agree arrangements with the highway authority. As regards charging, the department is now considering responses to a consultation paper which was sent out for consultation in September, 1989. There would be time to implement its details in any proposed legislation.

Lord Rea

My Lords, as a cyclist, who this morning was practically thrown off his bicycle three times on the way to the House because of inadequately filled holes in the road, can the Minister tell me whether he has any powers —even of persuasion —to insist that the undertakers who make holes in the road fill them up adequately and level with the rest of the road?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, under the existing provisions in the code which I mentioned in my Answer, utilities and others licensed to excavate the streets are required to restore the surface of the road or footpath only to its original surface level. That is often a temporary restoration. The highway authority has the right to carry out the permanent restoration at a later stage or it may allow the utility to do so. Most authorities elect to do so themselves. The difficulty arises in the time between the temporary and permanent restoration of the road, but the code of practice in the new law will over-come that.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether the proposed legislation will deal with a trouble which arises today? I am referring to the fact that just when the highway has been restored another worthy organisation comes along and digs it up again. In view of the fact that my noble friend says that the matter is being considered, does he agree that it was being considered in Government to my personal knowledge in 1955? Is it not now time that something was actually done about it?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I have a great deal of sympathy for what my noble friend says but the 1950 Act is now in force. However, I understand that the Department of Transport has made proposals to local authority associations and utilities for joint development of a computerised street works register. I am sure that once that task has been undertaken the concerns held by many noble Lords about roads being dug up once and then dug up again will be overcome. However, that does not mean to say that we do not need the law to back it up.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I and other noble Lords have been pressing the matter for at least the past two years? As long ago as 1986 the Government stated that they accept the 1973 recommendations in the Home Report and that legislation will be introduced as and when the opportunity arises. We have been given that answer time and time again. As the subject is to be debated next Wednesday on an Unstarred Question, will the Minister consult his right honourable friend the Secretary of State in order to obtain a better Answer outlining definite action?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I shall consider most carefully the noble Lord's comments. I appreciate that he has an abiding interest in matters of transport and has raised the subject on many occasions. However, many factors must be taken into account when determining the legislative programme. Some measures are essential in order to conform to international law and others are a political priority. Street works reform would have required a lengthy, technically complex Bill and there would not have been sufficient parliamentary time this Session.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, is the Minister saying that the Government give the subject low parliamentary priority?

Viscount Ullswater

No, my Lords, I am saying that there may be other subjects which have a higher parliamentary priority.