HL Deb 05 April 2000 vol 611 cc1305-34

3.6 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

rose to call attention to the number of statutory undertakers and others with powers to dig holes in the road; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I begin by expressing a hope that the Minister who will reply to the debate will carefully read, mark and learn the well-informed and extremely well-timed article that appears in today's Evening Standard. I hope also, in view of the excellent advice that I have received from the RAC, that Ministers might lend their ears—that is, if their ears are still working—to the RAC.

Digging holes in roads may seem a rather odd subject with which to detain your Lordships. I should not dream of doing so were it not for the fact that the frequency of the occurrence and the numbers of people who have now made it their favourite recreation have multiplied—with the result that it has now become and serious and costly nuisance.

It may be useful to go over a little of the background to this debate. Noble Lords might recall, through the mists of time, July 1998, when the Government introduced what used to be called a White Paper. It is still called a White Paper, but somehow or other it has become rather coloured and elaborate, even though its contents are just as flat and dull as they always used to be. The White Paper to which I refer was honoured with a foreword by no less a person than the Deputy Prime Minister. Although it is not exactly a storehouse of gems, there are some semi-precious stones which deserve to be remembered.

Astonishingly, the Deputy Prime Minister said, We also want a better deal for the motorist". We still do. It has been a long time coming. He went on to say that the Government want better management of the roads network. That, too, is still awaited. Then there was a particular gem. He said: We have devised new and imaginative ways of obtaining money from transport for better transport". No one would then have guessed that what the Deputy Prime Minister had in mind was not a new imposition but the familiar and rather old tax on petrol, which has been constantly revisited by the Chancellor ever since.

Some of us still cherish the hope that the Government will proceed to do something about the nuisance caused by holes which so many are free to dig in our roads. I understand that the writer of the article in the Evening Standard, to which I have already referred, contacted the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (as it is now called) and was told that the Government were still urgently considering the problem. The department went on to say that it would probably be wrong to expect action before Christmas. One is tempted to ask: which Christmas?

Patience can be overdone. I know of no greater exemplars of patience than the English people. I believe that they would be well advised to remember the old adage that the axle that squeaks the loudest gets the most grease. Perhaps the time has arrived when this very tiresome nuisance is raised, not just in the hope that somehow, at some time, the Government might do something about it, but with insistence and, if necessary, a degree of anger. I should like to give the Government some of my thoughts on what they could, and should, do now as a token of their new enlightenment. (Whenever I can, I try to introduce the word "new" to bring home the point.)

Perhaps the Government will adopt the suggestion made by my honourable friend Mr Christopher Fraser. In a Bill introduced at the beginning of last year he proposed that the Government should make use of their existing powers to impose fines upon utilities that did not fulfil the details of their plans and, in particular, did not finish on time.

The Government might also consider with sympathy—that is something which central government rarely do—the plight, tasks and responsibilities of highway authorities. Their task is a formidable one. I am advised that the average highway authority can expect to receive some 20,000 applications a year from people seeking to dig up its roads. If the noble Lord wants to interrupt me to say that I am wrong, I shall be delighted. For a moment, I was concerned that my statement had caused the noble Lord some unease. I am glad that that is not so. Highway authorities are the only bodies in this country that are capable of dealing with the problem, but they have neither the muscle nor the resources to do it. I believe that there should be legislation to give them the authority of law to plan, implement and charge for this work and, if necessary, penalise those who do not meet their obligations under plans to which they have agreed.

The Government sometimes behave as if they are reluctant to legislate. There has never been such an enthusiastic legislator as this Government. We see appalling messes all over the statute book; some illegible, some meaningless, and all of them requiring a tremendous number of amendments before they even start. The Government should put on the statute book a simple measure to deal with this matter. When the Transport Bill comes before your Lordships' House, it will offer the Government a wonderful opportunity. I am only too anxious to help the Government in that task. That measure should give highway authorities the power that they need. It should provide that those who use the highway for the purposes of their business should pay for the privilege, just as other users of the highway are obliged to pay by means of taxes every day of their lives. I see no reason why those who impose confusion, congestion and delay on others should not be invited to contribute to the roads, along with their victims.

Others have a role to play. The Highways Agency has attracted my attention. That agency, which is really the alter ego of the DETR, is helpful to Ministers because it provides them with a ready-made alibi. They can wash their hands of something and say that people must complain to the Highways Agency. I am not sure how useful is the Highways Agency at a time when the Government have suspended the road-building programme. Nevertheless, I hope that that agency will play a helpful rile. Perhaps it will begin by ensuring that those operations which it still conducts are carried out in a way which has regard to the convenience and interests of the road-using public.

Having dealt with the need to provide highway authorities with additional powers, I turn briefly to the licensees or utilites—all 138 of them. I almost called them "trespassers". I wonder whether they even begin to be aware o the hostility with which they are increasingly viewed by people who are not interested in the rather shallow defence that this work is absolutely necessary. No one disputes that. What is challenged is the way in which the work is carried out—with lack of consideration and efficiency and no concern whatever for the general convenience and interest of other road users.

Some of the names are well known: Transco, Thames Water and British Telecom. British Telecom incurred a good deal of dislike for having dug up one street nine times in 12 months. Such conduct is careless, sloppy and, in the view of the public, unpardonable. In that context, I cannot forbear to mention the television cable companies which have now made their appearance. The only name that I can recall at the moment is McNicholas. They put their green pipes all over the place without any explanation of where they have come from—one can make a guess about that—what they are doing or how long they will take, appearing to be utterly careless of the massive inconvenience caused. Those licensees might do well to adopt a more constructive approach. Instead of opposing every move forward, they might seek from the Government some suggestions of how they might help rather than obstruct.

Finally, I have this suggestion. Those who really want to spend time digging the roads and irritating profoundly the rest of us should be required, as a minimum, to put up notices on the site telling anyone who is interested who they are, what they are doing, why they are doing it and how long it will take. To that notice they might also append the name and address of some responsible representative. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.20 p.m.

Lord Lipsey

My Lords, the whole House will be extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, for introducing this topical subject and for his admirable speech. I obtained my first driving licence in 1965. That was one year after the noble Lord had ceased to be Minister of Transport. However, I am told by those who were around when the noble Lord was Minister of Transport that there was ample parking outside every shop, traffic lights were permanently set to green—and holes in the road were known of only by the stories of whey-faced travellers from countries outside this land. Alas, times have changed for the worst.

When I worked for the Sunday Times in the 1980s the then editor, Harold Evans, was in the middle of a great campaign against cones. Every week Fleet Street's finest were sent off to scour the land in search of more cones which were holding up traffic and articles appeared in the Sunday Times attacking them. His executives, who felt that readers were becoming bored with cones, implored him to call off the campaign and move on to other issues. Harold Evans, who was a wise and experienced hand, said, "No, we must continue this campaign. It is only when they start to get bored that you're getting anywhere". So he continued to campaign. And who can say that it did not work? Ten years later John Major introduced the cones hotline.

As a result of his persistence, the campaign of the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, deserves to go down in history with the campaign of Harold Evans. We have had representations from the noble Lord when we were unable to reach this House because on 7th February Parliament Square had been dug up; we have had his call for signs by roadworks telling us who perpetrates them; and we have the debate today. So we are deeply indebted to him for raising the problem.

However, I have some problems with the solutions proposed. I have learned a good deal about your Lordships' House in the short time that I have been attending. But I have not hitherto perceived it as a hotbed of traditional socialism. Yet the remedies put forward nearly all seem to belong in the Soviet Union of the 1930s: let us put names to perpetrators of the holes in the road; let us name and shame them; we shall have better co-ordination of holes in the roads; there will be greater powers for highways authorities to curb holes in the roads. Fairly shortly I expect the proposal that the heads of British Telecom—it is such a dire offender in this regard—and some of the other companies be sent for show trial and then exiled to the Outer Hebrides, there to dig and fill in holes without end for the rest of their days—and that would be no more than justice, I agree!

However, I do not think that that would resolve the problems of holes in the roads. Over the years, we have found that administrative solutions to such issues do not work. We would know by now if they did because there have been many attempts.

The noble Lord referred to New Labour. I am New Labour in the sense of believing in the market approach to these questions. I think that the way forward is relatively simple. It is to charge the utilities responsible for digging holes in the road for the value of the time wasted by drivers as a consequence. It is a transport relative of a theory with which we are all familiar and to which we nearly all now adhere: the polluter pays—the blocker pays. It is not a new principle even in transport. When new roads are to be built, they are evaluated by the DETR. A value is put on the time that will be saved by the building of those roads. I checked the figure. It is £3.98 an hour for leisure time, and £16.28 for work time. That may say something about the relative values society gives to work and leisure. The delays caused by building those roads are also costed at exactly the same rates and set in the accounts against the value of the roads. That principle seems applicable in logic to holes in the ground. The delay should be charged to and paid for by the contractor.

I can think of three possible objections, some of which we have seen reflected in the newspapers. First, it would stop certain kinds of development. We would not have cables put into our factories and so on. But a simple principle of economics is this. If the cost of doing something outweighs the benefit, you do not do it. In most cases I do not think that that would be the result. For instance, the benefits of cabling are enormous to society and would outweigh the cost. But in cases where the costs outweigh the benefits, the work should not take place.

There is a variant on that argument: that it would put up prices; that if the gas company had to pay to dig holes in the road the price of gas would go up and that would be inflationary. That is a second and equally crass economic fallacy. It is a fallacy mainly because a change in the relative price level cannot in principle affect the absolute price level in society. That is determined by macroeconomic factors. For example, if the money went to the Government, they might choose to reduce the rate of VAT. The price level would be unchanged but it would shift from a general burden on all consumers to one on the consumers of the gas whose production had caused the delays in the first place.

Finally, that is not what will happen. If one increases the cost of digging the holes, prices will not increase. Companies would start to dig those holes at weekends when there was not much traffic. In the country they would dig them at night when there was no traffic to be delayed. And new techniques would be invented because the old techniques would prove too expensive. Instead of having to dig a hole before companies put in a fibre optic cable, they would soon invent ways of leading fibre optic cables underground which avoided having to pay those charges. That is how the market works. It took a long time for some of us in the Labour Party to understand the magic of the market, but it is rather good at solving this kind of problem.

The previous government dipped a half toe in the water. Under Section 74 of the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991, they can charge for works which continue beyond their allotted time. This Government have gone a little further. Their consultation document in 1999, entitled Reducing disruption for utilities' street works, proposes that there should be a charge not only for those who take too long to dig their holes and fill them in again but also from day one when the work is started. But that is still not a charge related to the degree of disruption caused. It does not matter if it takes a little longer to dig up a minor byway in the country, but it matters tremendously if, as at present, there are dug up in swift order Parliament Square, Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly. Therefore the charges there would be much greater.

The Government have at last started to consult along the' right lines, but they have not yet gone far enough. Not many long-lasting problems—it is a lesson of life—lend themselves to relatively easy solutions. I think that this solution is a rare exception. I commend it to the House and the Government.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, perhaps I may gently remind all noble Lords that the time is extremely tight and that if they overrun they will make a huge hole in the Minister's time to reply to their concerns.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Sandberg

My Lords, I believe that the previous speaker spoke for less than his allotted time.

The irritation which the problem has caused has led to Questions being asked in the House, but this is the first time we have had an opportunity to debate the issue at length. We are therefore most indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Peyton.

The subject appears to be a music hall joke. We do not want that; we want it to become the serious issue that it is. Holes in the road not only cause great anger; they cost us a great deal of money. Anger is also aroused by the lack of government action in respect of the digging of the holes. I hope that the Minister will offer some solutions.

I want to refer to some of the arguments we constantly hear. Some repairs are undertaken in areas where there are private residences. It is most irritating to discover that no one is working at, say, half past four. I am sure that contractors could be told to work until seven or eight o'clock in the evening and that if that costs more they should have to deal with it. We cannot have holes just left in the middle of the road.

The frequency of digging up the same stretch of road has been mentioned. The Strand is a great example: it was dug up continuously over a period of two years. There appears to be no contact between the different contractors involved.

Another frequent complaint relates to announcements that work will be completed by a certain date. What happens if it is not? Can the utility or contractor be fined, or fined enough? Recently, the road between St James's Street and Albemarle Street was dug up and a notice indicated that the work would be finished by a certain date. It went on for at least another week. But there was no notice of explanation, or of an apology, or of a fine. Can the Minister say whether fines can be levied and, if so, whether they are sufficiently high? Contractors do not seem to realise the cost to the country of longer journeys. They should be involved in some of that cost.

Finally, can the Minister assure the House that the Government are taking the matter seriously and that legislation will soon be brought forward in order to overcome an increasingly irritating problem?

3.34 p.m.

Lord Levene of Portsoken

My Lords, I was pleased to see that the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, had initiated today's debate on an issue with which we are all confronted on an all too regular basis, whether we like it or not.

Last year, during my term of office as Lord Mayor of the City of London, the topic caused increasing concern and led us to address the issue in the City in a manner which I believe should commend itself to wider usage.

I was very much aware of the proposed Streetworks Bill, which was under discussion in another place, but recognised the difficulties which such legislation might and did produce. My concern with the Bill was that in so far as it imposed costs on the utilities—that has been further suggested today—I did not believe that that would have any impact on reducing the problem, other than that the costs involved would be passed on to the consumers.

Furthermore, motorists or other passengers in transit, stuck in inevitable jams caused by such roadworks, would certainly find very little comfort in learning that the contractor was having to pay for the privilege of holding them up. They would far rather not be held up at all, or at least, far less frequently.

In the City, our intention was to try to address the problem with the co-operation of the various utilities involved, with a view to reducing significantly the incidence of disruption, but on a voluntary basis. I was very interested, but not entirely surprised, to learn last year that the Square Mile represents 20 per cent of the entire UK market for the telecommunications services by value. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the incidence of digging in the streets to lay new cables can, at times, become overwhelming.

Having done a certain amount of investigation into the subject, it became clear that the vast bulk of the cost relating to streetworks was involved in digging up the road and then filling it in again and resurfacing it, rather than in the cables and pipes in the holes. Many noble Lords will have seen all too often the ludicrous situation of a stretch of road being dug up, subsequently filled in and then dug up again almost immediately by a different utility.

My aim was, through voluntary consultation, to persuade the utilities to co-operate with each other and with the local authority so that a busy stretch of highway would be dug up only once during a period of, say, a year or two, but that during the time the trench was open all the utilities would use the facility to lay or re-lay their own services. That has the enormous advantage to the utilities that they would save a huge amount of money.

I wrote to the chairmen of all the utilities which operate in the City of London and held a meeting with them to discuss the matter. It was recognised that emergencies occur which cannot be pre-planned and that some requirements, particularly in telecommunications, are necessary at relatively short notice. None the less, we succeeded in the City of London in a number of areas.

First, we published a voluntary code of practice for the co-ordination of streetworks in the City of London. All the 20 statutory undertakings which work in the City have agreed to it and adopted it. We have listed the 56 main streets in the City which are included in the voluntary code of practice. In addition, we have given the statutory undertakings our plans up to the year 2020, indicating which works will be undertaken in which streets, on which dates and, in particular, where the local authority—in this case, the City—has to resurface the streets in question. That has an even bigger advantage to the utilities. We dig the hole and provide the trench; they fill it in with pipes; and then we resurface it. They pay nothing and it is work which the City would have to undertake in any event.

In addition, the utilities have agreed to submit their own proposals to the Corporation for co-ordination and that, following the completion of the works in question, a 12-month moratorium on the particular street being broken up will be firmly enforced.

The voluntary code of practice has been in operation in the City since the beginning of the year and there is every indication that it is working well. Indeed, I am told that the practice of sharing holes or trenches is a great success in the City.

The scheme is not perfect—no scheme of this type ever can be—but it has the considerable merit of costing nothing, requiring no legislation, saving costs to the utilities and therefore their customers, and reducing the number and frequency of the holes, which we all loathe.

I know that neighbouring local authorities in London are considering similar schemes. I would commend to the Government an early consideration of the scheme with a view to expanding its operation much more widely throughout the country.

3.39 p.m.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

My Lords, what we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Levene, promises the most hopeful solution that I, for one, have heard on this subject for a very long time. I, too, am pleased that my noble friend Lord Peyton has raised the question of people who are authorised to dig holes in the road. As I drive around the Weald of Kent, where I live, it sometimes seems that there is more hole than road. My noble friend Lord Peyton concentrated on the concerns of road users. In a moment or two, I should like to concentrate on the concerns of business people—shopkeepers and the like—whose interests are gravely damaged by the current practice (or malpractice) of digging up the roads.

There appears to be no concern among those who have the statutory power to authorise a hole to be dug in the road for the effect that it will have on businesses. There appears to be no provision for the service of reasonable and sensible notice on those who will be affected. There appears to be no requirement to give an estimate of the length of time that the road will be dug up and, sometimes, closed. There appears to be no provision for monitoring by, in one instance, the DTI. I have given notice to the Minister of a horror story that I wish to raise in which the DTI was the authorising body. There is no provision for monitoring progress and no provision for a penalty to be imposed in the event of an overrun of the estimate. Finally, there is no provision for compensation. Those are major shortcomings in a field where one, of course, recognises that electronic advance will lead to trenches being dug for cables to be laid for whatever reason.

I want to regale the House, if I may, with a horror story that arises in the villages of Matfield, Brenchley and Horsmonden near where I live. As I said, I have given the noble Lord an account of what took place there in February and March this year. I am sure that not many noble Lords will be aware of those villages, but a road connects them. On a Saturday afternoon in February a letter arrived at the village shop, kept by Mr Michael Keyhoe, which said that on the following Monday morning the road between Matfield, Brenchley and Horsmonden was to be not only dug up but closed. There were to be no traffic lights; the road was to be closed. Of course, there was no estimate of how long the work was to take. Naturally, there was no compensation of any kind. There was no consultation; nothing. It was simply going to happen. And so it duly did.

The road was closed for four weeks. Who was responsible? I understand that it was a business called Level 3 acting through sub-contractors called Fujitsu. They did not have the courtesy to explain how long they were going to take. However, apparently they explained that it was necessary to close the road because they were digging a trench to enable a fibre-optic cable to connect the City of London with Frankfurt via Folkestone. Not too many people in Horsmonden wish to make contact with Frankfurt other than by means of the ordinary telephone. At least, they did not when I represented them for 23 years as their Member of Parliament. Therefore, it was an added soreness that this major disruption would bring no benefit whatever to the people who suffered in terms of their business.

Having regard to his family background, I know that I do not need to instruct the Minister about the harm that is done to a village grocery, for example, or to a village bakery, a butcher's shop, or any other retail shop, when this kind of thing occurs. For four weeks the road was closed. I am not saying that those villages were cut off; of course, they were not. However, it was much more difficult, for example, for someone to reach the village butcher. In consequence, the butcher's trade suffered a considerable falling-off. I believe that that is true of all the four retail businesses located there, not to mention the pub, and the difficulties sustained by the primary school.

How did this come about in such an unjust way? I believe that it was entirely because those businesses—I refer to Level 3 and Fujitsu—behaved as people always do when they are granted power over other people with no accountability whatever. Considerable damage has been done and, even now, the event is not complete. Although the road is open, the workers will come back and continue with more digging.

Therefore, if there is no statutory provision for reasonable notice—Saturday afternoon until Monday morning in this instance—I should be most grateful if the Minister could explain why there is no provision for notice, for monitoring, for an estimate for the duration of the works, for a penalty clause, or for compensation? As I understand it, none of those things is provided for; at least none has been accorded to those unfortunate people. Therefore, although I gave the noble Lord only short notice, I hope very much that he can tell me why that was the case in the example I have given. If he cannot tell me today, perhaps he will be kind enough to write to me and publish his letter.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest as the president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. I draw attention to the fact that so far the debate has revolved significantly around road traffic expressed in terms of vehicles. Perhaps I may point out that the greatest danger of inadequate resurfacing of roads—that is, inattention to detail in making sure that the job is done properly—is to two-wheeled traffic. Motor cyclists and cyclists have constant problems with uneven roads. Perhaps I may add that pedestrians also come into the picture. It is certainly the case that the cabling companies disrupted the pavements of almost every town in the country, causing enormous difficulties to people who have to push prams and pushchairs around their districts. Such people have no sanction at all against companies which have an absolute right to dig trenches outside their homes.

Some people may believe that the worst is behind us because the particular cabling associated with television cable companies is over. However, of course, as has already been hinted at in the debate, a fresh wave is about to descend on the country. It has already been experienced in Kent in terms of the development of the new telecommunications digital frameworks, which also require an enormous number of trenches to be dug across many parts of our country. Therefore, the problem will be significant and lasting. That is why we can understand the great public anxiety about those issues, which is reflected by a number of significant columnists. Simon Jenkins of the Evening Standard, for one, drew attention to the depredations upon landowners. He reflected that, just as the Visigoths attempted to make Rome uninhabitable after their visitation, the same experience is besetting Londoners at present by the extent to which their roads are in havoc.

I greatly applaud the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Levene, who indicated the way in which the City of London was approaching this issue. However, he will recognise that the City of London carries a particular punch when it comes to bringing together those great utilities which often, of course, want to draw upon the facilities of the City of London in other terms as well.

There is at least one other authority in Britain which is significantly successful in that way. I received a letter from Councillor Mike Olley of the City of Birmingham in which he says that we operate what we call a "FOG"—"fear of God"—scheme with regard to contractors and the people who commission them. We regularly monitor and follow through the monitoring, and we continually harry those who fail to meet their obligations. However, just as the City of London has particular power in terms of its financial dimension, the City of Birmingham is the second biggest authority in the country. I am not at all amazed that the City of Birmingham is able to wield such clout. However, the position for far too many of our local highways authorities is quite clear: they are denuded of resources and have limited ability to insist upon the consultation that is meant to take place before their roads are dug up. They know that there are more kicks than halfpence in chasing up those institutions. To be involved with the issue brings opprobrium upon the local authorities' heads when they have very little power to do an) thing about it.

That is why we should look at the way in which we can increase regulation. I agree entirely with the contribution by my noble friend Lord Lipsey. Action is necessary in this area. Of course, it is possible to make the obstructer pay but that will require regulation and Acts of this Parliament in order to ensure that that is in force. That is what we are asking from the Minister today. From the process of consultation which has been going on and the responses that he has received, does he not have a case for early implementation of legislation which will empower our local authorities to safeguard their environment?

At present, enormous frustrations build up because of the blockage of roads. Britain's roads are congested to an extraordinary degree under normal circumstances. But this blight of a greatly extended number of roadworks by a whole plethora of authorities and utilities surely means that we must look at the way in which we can insist that those utilities fit into a common scheme of consultation; of payment where their contractors fail to meet their obligations; and perhaps we might even consider the representations which I know that the City of Birmingham has made to Ofwat. It was suggested that as part of the statutory performance indicators that Ofwat imposes on the water companies, there should be a requirement to keep their contractors under some kind of order with regard to that issue.

I have no doubt at all that the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, has done a public service in introducing this debate. It greatly concerns the nation at the present time. It behoves the Minister to make a positive and constructive response on the way ahead.

3.51 p.m.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I rise with some diffidence in this debate since I can claim no great expertise in the matter of digging holes in roads; but perhaps that is not necessary. My viewpoint—the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, will be pleased to hear this—is that of the innocent passer-by. I am a pedestrian to my last toe. Therefore, I am well aware of the difficulties experienced in crossing roads; in smelling the fumes caused by the semi-stationary traffic; and, indeed, in my capacity as a local taxpayer, in terms of the cost caused by that seemingly extremely inefficient system.

I may also be considered to be the man or woman on the Clapham omnibus because I use public transport whenever I cannot walk to my destination. The stress and strain on the drivers of public transport—buses and taxis—is considerable. But I am also a local resident and I have to drive my car from time to time and pay for residents' parking, which also may be disrupted as a result of those works. Therefore, as a pedestrian, public transport user, car driver and local resident and taxpayer, I must say that the current scene in London is just too much.

It is not so much the principle of the work as the extent of the digging up. Travelling along Piccadilly has become torture. Whitehall and Parliament Square have been a mess for as long as I can remember. That picture is replicated throughout the City and the various boroughs of London.

I was most interested to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Levene, said on this matter and I look forward with interest to hearing the results of the application of the voluntary code. But nobody so far has mentioned the reason why, at this time of year, there always seems to be a considerable amount of digging up. That is something to do with the funding of local authorities and the fact that local authorities realise that the yearend is close and they must spend all their money or give it back. It may be also that the elections for the mayor of London are a spur to the boroughs to do things before a new mayor comes in and attempts to do something else.

So clearly, it seems to me that there is a need for coordination or, at all events, more co-ordination among undertakers. That is not just between the public utilities and themselves or between themselves and the local authorities; there is also a need for more co-ordination between neighbouring local authorities and boroughs.

I know that there has been legislation in the past but the exceptions or exemptions for emergencies which are used as an excuse for avoiding the requirements of legislation do not help at all. I should be interested to know what sort of monitoring is carried out to see to what extent the existing rules and regulations are being observed.

There is also a clear need for better signs and explanations, times and dates of when work is taking place. My noble friend Lord Peyton said that clearly in his final remarks. But only at lunch time today, I heard a story from somebody who lives in a small village where all the roads were suddenly dug up but because there was a large sign saying that that was all in aid of a better water supply for the village, people relaxed and realised that they would have to put up with it and that it was worth the "aggro".

There is also the question of cost. I believe that my noble friend Lord Peyton gave an example of one street being dug up nine times in one year. The cost of that would be quite ridiculous. Oceans of money are poured out on painting red lines on roads to make red routes and as soon as that has been done, the roads are dug up. What a waste of time and money.

There is also the issue of residents' parking to which I referred briefly; and there is the cost in personal terms of stress and strain on bus and taxi drivers and everybody else.

Last year, my honourable friend Christopher Fraser introduced his Streetworks Bill as a Private Member's Bill in the other place. That was the Bill referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Levene, in his comments. It proposed to place new statutory responsibilities on companies carrying out streetworks. Specifically, they would be required to take measures at their own expense to alleviate obstruction or to improve traffic flow; to put up signs giving information on the name and contact number of the undertaker, and the purpose and date of completion of the work.

Undertakers who fail to comply with the requirements would be liable for charges payable to the highways authority. The Bill also proposed the introduction, within six months of its enactment, of regulations provided in Section 74 of the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991 which allows charges to be levied for occupation of the highway when works are unreasonably prolonged.

The Bill also provided for guidance to be issued by the Secretary of State on the calculation of the charges payable, depending on the length of time involved and the degree of obstruction and inconvenience. The Government blocked the Bill. Why did they do that?

To sum up, we have had legislation and proposed legislation and it has not worked or it has been blocked. What does the Minister suggest can be done to make effective any future legislation? We clearly need a financial incentive. What form do the Government suggest such an incentive should take, given the variety of proposals which have been aired this afternoon? Furthermore, how would that be monitored? Finally, how can the Minister ensure that there is joined-up thinking and planning in relation to digging holes in the roads?

3.59 p.m.

Lord Armstrong of Ilminster

My Lords, I should like to add my support and gratitude to that expressed to the noble Lord, Lord Peyton of Yeovil, for raising the subject this afternoon and for enabling us to have this debate.

I was particularly interested in the contribution of my noble friend Lord Levene, who has been in a position where he could do something about the problem and did so effectively. I hope that his example may be repeated and copied elsewhere. I should like to draw attention to two aspects of the nuisance to which these Keynesian holes in the road give rise. First, a case in London recently came to my notice where a hole in the road was made, the work which had to be done appeared to be carried out extremely quickly within the day, but the contractors' impedimenta remained on the pavement for many days thereafter: the barriers which they had put around the hole in the road and the little pile of spoil for which there did not appear to be room in the hole when they had finished. Those impedimenta clogged up the pavement and were a nuisance to those using the pavement for many days. I suggest that if there are to be financial penalties for lack of proper performance, that is one of the aspects which should be considered.

Secondly, I invite the Minister to comment on the need for some advance notice when there are roadworks caused by statutory undertakers—or indeed, anyone else—on trunk roads where there is only a single carriageway. I have certainly experienced during recent weeks a delay of up to one hour on a track of single carriageway trunk road in Wiltshire where some work was being carried out. It was not clear who was carrying it out as there was no notice, as the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, has suggested there should be. It did not appear to be work on the road itself, but there was a lot of quite heavy machinery which had to be cordoned off. There was single way working. Lines of traffic in both directions were held up for the best part of an hour.

That situation could have been avoided at least in part if notices had been put up well clear of the actual obstruction before the junctions either side of it so that drivers who wished to do so could take diversionary action and divert down other roads to avoid the obstruction. That would have reduced the amount of traffic held up in the traffic jams, reduced the frustration, reduced the cost of petrol being needlessly burned as engines were kept ticking over and would have enabled people to reach their destinations more quickly. I hope that the Minister will address that matter in his reply.

4.2 p.m.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes

My Lords, I too express my gratitude to my noble friend Lord Peyton of Yeovil and to the noble Lord, Lord Levene. He made a number of good points on the feasibility of the way in which we must approach the matter. I shall direct my remarks to central London only.

My noble friend Lord Peyton said that there were some 20,000 applications for roadworks throughout the country at a given time. I submit that all 20,000 are in central London at the moment. My main concern is not that holes are being dug. Let us face it: our roads are old, traffic is increasing and the need to dig up the roads, quite apart from maintenance, is increasing all the time. That is understandable and I have a good deal of sympathy with those involved. But I have no sympathy with tie fact that there is no co-ordination whatever about the roadworks in any local authority or any highway authority. We are not talking about little holes; large areas are cordoned off. You come to one and then just around the corner there is another one: and just around that corner there is another, so there is a triple whammy of traffic congestion because obviously no thought of co-ordination has taken place with regard to setting up the roadworks.

Furthermore, as I am sure that many noble Lords will have observed, there is no one working on a great many of the cordoned-off roadworks. I have passed them several times because of the debate and have taken careful note of areas where for periods of 24 and 36 hours there has been no work whatever. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Levene, that it may be easier to control the City of London because a great deal of work in the City of London could be carried out at night. That is not always practical in the rest of London, but I certainly support the Conservative candidate for mayor of London, Steven Norris, who proposes that, wherever practical, roadworks should take place at night. I fully understand that many considerations and practicalities are involved, but where it is possible and feasible I do not see why that should not happen.

The other point which one has to consider with such horrifying crisis diversions in London is the amount of environmental damage done by the unnecessary pollution. As has been mentioned previously, the position of pedestrians is also affected. They often have to climb over mounds of earth which have spilled over from the roadworks at pedestrian crossings. They have to make their way around barriers where there is no proper crossing and often where motorists cannot see them.

We know that the Government hold the motorist in contempt. I believe that we have the most expensive petrol in the world. We certainly pay the highest parking fees in central London. I am not sure about car tax; but it must be high in the world league. We are given no consideration whatever by local authorities, the highways authorities and by everyone who already has it in his power to co-ordinate roadworks. I beg the Minister, when he comes to wind up, to give us at least an indication that the Government take the matter seriously and are determined to take matters in hand to see what can be done for what I describe again as a crisis situation.

4.7 p.m.

Lord Razzall

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, for bringing this important debate before us. The quality of the speeches and the concerns expressed clearly demonstrate the seriousness with which the Government need to take the issues that he raised. I thank him also because, as has been indicated, he has given us a rare opportunity in this House. Normally debates in this House are—shall I say?—low-key, a little learned, detailed and reflective. If sonorous, they do not have the knockabout rowdiness of the other place but perhaps a sonority reflecting the worldly-wise experience of noble Lords. There have been few opportunities during the two years that I have been in this House for anyone to have a political rant, but the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, has given us the opportunity today.

Like the previous speaker, I should like as a Londoner to concentrate my remarks on what has been happening in London over the past few years and what is happening today. If any noble Lord is not aware of the problem, I suggest that tomorrow he brings in his car, parks it in the car park outside and begins by attempting to go down Whitehall at any hour of the day. He probably will not be able to go down Whitehall, because he will find it significantly blocked at the Trafalgar Square end and he will probably have to go around Horse Guards. Having made it around Horse Guards and into Trafalgar Square, he will find that he is stuck also in Trafalgar Square because it is being dug up. If he negotiates that and then moves along Pall Mall, he will then find an enormous tailback of traffic coming from the blockage at the top of St James's Street in Piccadilly outside the Ritz hotel. Indeed, one might say that the blockage outside the Ritz hotel gives a new meaning to the expression, "The Ritz is open to everyone". One might think that there would be some respite, but I am told that the blockage at the top of Piccadilly will not be cleared until November this year, so we shall have intolerable delay in that area until then.

If tomorrow noble Lords try to drive past Victoria Station, they will find that that route is no better because Buckingham Palace Road is being dug up and that road will not be free of roadworks until early in 2001. I believe that Westminster Cable Television Company is responsible for that digging.

I agree with the comment made by the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes. One solution to the problem could be for the work to be carried out after five o'clock. In the course of the normal working day, one can often see holes where no one is working at all. I believe that a prize should be given to any noble Lord who catches someone working in the holes, certainly around Trafalgar Square, which I travel past three or four times a day.

Several years ago the question used to be, why is the Embankment being dug up at the same time as the Strand? In order for there to be an escape route, why is not the Strand finished before the Embankment is dug up and vice versa? That question is now irrelevant. The whole of London is being dug up simultaneously.

How has that happened? Many people believe that the fault originated with privatisation. Under the privatisation Acts and regulations, British Telecom, Thames Water and the cable companies have the right to dig up any road after merely informing the relevant local authority. Leaving aside the matter of the gas and electricity companies, I understand that currently 86 telecommunications companies have the right to dig up roads without permission.

London poses a particular problem because after 1991 those with the power to dig up roads without permission had no obligation to inform the local council. Since 1991 the obligation has been to inform central government because there was a suggestion that between the privatisation measures being enacted and 1991, local councils were delaying, attempting to co-ordinate and slowing up the process. Central government now controls by fax. I believe that all noble Lords would agree that if there is co-ordination we cannot see it, and if it being done by fax, the fax machine was long ago taken off the hook.

No government, whether Tory or Labour, have anything to be proud of in this regard. Of course, the Tories introduced the privatisation legislation that set in train those matters. John Gummer, when Minister for London, once boasted that there was no need for accountable separate government in London because he knew what was best. After three years, are the present Government any better? With bated breath we waited for the recommendations and the new policy that John Prescott was to unveil. A month or so ago he came up with a marvellous solution: contractors may no longer fax their intention to dig up London, but they must do so by e-mail.

As Simon Jenkins said a month ago in an article in the Evening Standard, Thus do fools fiddle while London burns". For many years London has had an inferiority complex. We recognise that although Londoners account for 20 per cent of the population, they take a disproportionate amount of the country's resources. We recognise that we have a London-centric press that bores the rest of the country with stories emanating from London only. On that basis we have accepted hospitals bursting at the seams and even tube stations closing daily.

As regards holes in the roads, I believe that the people of London have now had enough. Can the Minister, who is not from the DETR—I am not sure why he is being used as the fall guy in this debate—tell us, to use a phrase of Simon Jenkins, when the scorched earth policy of the DETR on London will stop? If the Government are not prepared to do anything about it, will they give the relevant powers to the new mayor of London? I doubt it. There is an old saying, "When you are in a hole, stop digging". Now is the time for the Minister to stop digging and tell us what he proposes to do about the problem.

4.14 p.m.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Peyton of Yeovil for giving us the opportunity to debate this matter. It is a timely debate as anybody who steps outside this House will see within a few yards of the door.

I come to this debate with a longstanding interest in these matters. I was the Minister of State in the Department of Transport who introduced the New Roads and Street Works Bill in this House in 1990. That became the 1991 Act which reformed the law on utilities' streetworks. It implemented the recommendations of the Horne report on the review of the wholly unsatisfactory system put in place by the Public Utilities Street Works Act 1950. In doing so, the Act replaced an exceptionally out-of-date statute with a flexible, modern one.

To the noble Lord, Lord Razzall, I say that the old gas companies, the old water boards and the old Post Office were allowed to dig up the roads long before privatisation. Privatisation has made no difference to that whatever.

The Act introduced new standards for the reinstatement of the road surface, with utility companies being fully responsible for reinstatement following their streetworks. That ended the previously confused divisions of responsibility between authorities and utilities. I believe that that part of the Act has been at least a moderate success. The Act also provided better control over the timing and coordination of streetworks.

Most importantly to this debate, Section 74 of the Act gives the Secretary of State the power to make regulations requiring an undertaker who executes works to pay a charge to the highway authority if the work is not completed within a reasonable period of time, and it is that part, to which other noble Lords have referred, that has never been brought into force.

The problems caused by utility companies digging holes in the roads are a longstanding annoyance to road users, especially in London. As the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, explained to this House last month, there are now many companies that are entitled to dig holes in the roads in London alone. That explains the difficulties incurred around Piccadilly, to which many noble Lords have referred. Recently, the Evening Standard reported three major sets of roadworks managing to, effectively cut off one side of the capital from the other". However, those difficulties are all too familiar. Cabling work has disrupted the roads around Parliament Square for some time.

I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, is present during this debate. On this side of the House we regard this as a transport matter rather than one relating to the DTI.

The Government have stated that it is, certainly the case that pressure has increased both from numbers of street works and from levels of traffic. And there is continuing concern among road users and others affected by these works". I certainly endorse those words.

It is the case that the sheer quantity of companies who need to dig holes in the road has led to a proliferation of lie problem. Gas, electric, water and telecommunications companies all need, at some stage, to lay new pipes and repair old or damaged ones. That means that they all need to dig holes in the road. In addition, the inset of cable television has created a new need for companies to dig holes.

Although the Conservative Party welcomes the new innovations in all these technologies and the competition that they bring, it believes that disruption should be kept to a minimum and that roads should be left in a good state of repair. To those ends, the local authorities should use more foresight at the onset of major roadworks, in regard to both the works of utilities and their own works. I agree with my noble friend Lady Hooper that some of these problems are not caused by the utilities, but by local authorities.

Simple procedures, such as banning right turns when a carriageway is reduced to one lane, and slight adjustments to the timing of signals, can make a great difference to the length of delays. I came across an example only two or three days ago. The inside lane of a busy two-lane road crossing the South Circular road was blocked with roadworks. Consequently, all the traffic was in the outside lane and one car wanting to turn right could bring all the traffic to a complete halt. The resolution should have been simple. Right-hand turns should have been banned while those roadworks were in place. But, of course, nothing was done. Little adjustments of that kind can make an immense difference and resolve some of these problems.

The Government conducted a consultation exercise on this issue, which ended in January. In the course of that they cited Section 74 of the 1991 Act as a power that is already available. The consultation paper stated that, the Government believes that such a scheme could make a difference". A second option put forward for discussion was the charging of rent for the stretch of road being dug up. Among other things, this could include a daily rate from the first day on site, with possibly higher charges imposed for London and traffic-sensitive streets. The introduction by the previous government of lane rental on motorways and trunk roads, where the contractor is effectively fined if he takes too long and rewarded if he completes the work early, has, I believe, been a major success story. Measures of that kind could be tried in this area as well. Other measures that could be considered include compulsory night-time or even 24-hour working in non-residential areas; and longer hours of work elsewhere. Even in residential areas, we should insist on a minimum of 12-hour working.

Above all, I put to the House a point that has not been mentioned so far in the debate but which was mentioned on several occasions by my late noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford when we were dealing with the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991. I refer to the use of trenchless technology. Can the Minister say what progress has been made in this area? For those who are unaware of the technology, it requires the use of mechanical moles.

Press speculation has suggested that the Government are planning to take action to introduce a daily charge on utility companies for digging holes in the street and to impose heavy fines if they delay the completion of roadworks beyond the stated deadline. To those ends, the 1991 Act is vital.

The Government announcement, if it is to be believed—although I see no reason not to believe it because we find out about so many policies through the media these days— strikes me as somewhat hypocritical. That is because a little over a year ago the Government blocked a sensible Private Member's Bill introduced by my honourable friend Mr Christopher Fraser in another place. A number of noble Lords have already referred to that measure. The Bill proposed to allow charges to be levied on undertakers of roadworks. If such roadworks were unreasonably prolonged, it suggested the enactment of Section 74 of the 1991 Act.

The Bill also proposed to place new statutory responsibilities on companies carrying out streetworks. Specifically, it required them to take measures to alleviate obstruction or to improve traffic flow at their own expense and to put up signs giving information about the name and contact number of the undertaker, as well as the purpose and completion date of the works. Undertakers who failed to comply with the requirements would be liable for charges payable to the highway authority. Indeed, some of the concerns raised by the noble Lord, Lord Levene, could have been discussed if the Government had allowed the Bill to have a Committee stage rather than blocking it at Second Reading.

At the time, the British Road Federation described the Bill as a, major boost to reducing congestion". Furthermore, the Evening Standard encouraged constituents, to write to their London MPs to ensure that each and every one of them backs Mr Fraser's Bill". However, I have good news because I hope that my noble friend Lord Geddes—who, sadly, is not able to attend the debate today—will shortly introduce such a Bill into this House.

It is not only the road user who is affected by such works. Pedestrians also face a hazardous journey to and from work or leisure in the capital and elsewhere. Pavements are dug up, then patched haphazardly, providing dangerously uneven walking conditions. Cycle paths that get in the way of the utilities are also left damaged by the patchwork of repair. I was glad to note that the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, referred to the problems facing both pedestrians and cyclists.

If the Government are to be believed when they state that they want to reduce the number of people who travel by car, pavements and cycle paths must be improved and the onus to clear them up must be put on the utility companies which create the problems.

In the July 1999 policy document, A Fair Deal for the Motorist, the Conservative Party made three pledges to improve the state of our roads and to reduce the impact of roadworks on Britain's motorists. First, we said that we shall improve road maintenance, and the visual and noise impact of roads on the environment. Secondly, we shall publish league tables of local authority performance on road maintenance so that councils which neglect roads are exposed. Thirdly, we shall penalise water, electricity, gas and telephone companies for excessive delays caused by their roadworks and use the money for local authority road maintenance. We shall place new statutory responsibilities on companies carrying out streetworks so that, at their own expense, they take measures to alleviate obstruction or improve traffic flow. Undertakers which fail to comply with their responsibilities will be liable for charges payable to the highway authority.

Finally, I should like to ask the Minister a few questions. Is the speculation in the press correct; namely, that the Government are going to act on this matter? If so, can the Minister be more specific as regards the arrangements for charging rent and charging for work that runs over a specified programme? What was the reasoning behind blocking the proposed Bill in the other place last year? Will the Government now support such a Bill if it is introduced in this House, or would they support, for example, measures introduced into the Transport Bill when that comes before this House?

In conclusion, I should like once again to thank my noble friend Lord Peyton for introducing the debate. I hope that the Government have listened to some of the useful and practical points that have been made by other noble Lords this afternoon.

4.26 p.m.

The Minister for Science, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville)

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to respond to this debate on behalf of the DTI, the government department responsible for granting statutory powers to dig in the public highway to the electricity, gas and telecommunications utilities. Perhaps I may say at the start of my remarks that we accept that this is an extremely serious situation. Furthermore, in answer to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Peyton of Yeovil, our ears are open and we are concerned about the issue.

In my response to the debate, I should like to focus mainly on the activities of the telecommunications operators. In recent years it has been the increase in their activities that has, indeed, changed the situation. The volume of construction activity by these companies has generated a high proportion of the recent comments and publicity about streetworks. New competition in gas and electricity markets does not generate the same level of streetwork activity since the vast bulk of new competition has been provided through supply companies using the existing Transco and regional electricity companies' networks.

In answer to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, local authorities do now receive three-year funding so that there is no need to rush through expenditure in March—or at least, only once in every three years. There has been considerable improvement in that respect.

Repeated and prolonged streetworks by telecoms operators have, I know, caused extensive disruption in certain parts of the country. In London, the disruption has been particularly severe as a number of operators install fibre optic networks to meet the growing demand from business for high-speed, broadband communication services. The south-west and Kent have also faced their share of problems from the construction of communications links up to London from cable landing sites on the Cornish and Kent coasts.

The Government are conscious of the disruption that the installation of telecoms cabling can cause and want to ensure that it is kept to a minimum. Before addressing what is being done to achieve this, it may be helpful if I explain what has led to the increase in the number of telecommunications operators and why they have been granted special rights as statutory undertakers.

The previous government set in train the process of introducing competition in the telecommunications market, in infrastructure as well as in services. This Government are strengthening and extending that competition. The results have been remarkable. The liberalisation has stimulated investment in a world-class communications infrastructure, to the benefit of business and residential consumers alike. Prices have fallen as services have been both improved and widened. The cable TV industry alone has invested some £12 billion in constructing new networks over the past decade. We have seen ever-increasing numbers of new companies entering the UK market. Levels of competition in the UK are as great as anywhere in the world with around 400 licences having been granted to a wide range of telecommunications operators.

Prices for international calls have fallen by 50 per cent in the past five years and we can now call the US for as little as 3p a minute. Competition is bringing UK Internet access prices down. UK Internet users have a wide choice of providers and an increasing choice of pricing packages. The UK was the first market to see subscription-free services develop and take off; and now we are the first in Europe to see services which eliminate call charges too.

The Government welcome continued investment in the UK's telecommunications infrastructure. The modern broadband networks now under construction are vital to meeting the Government's target of making the UK the best place in the world to do business electronically by 2002 and to ensuring the competitiveness of the economy as a whole. For the interactive multimedia service of the future, a modern broadband infra structure is vital. Services like fast, always-on Internet access and video-on-demand require high bandwidth links. A competition-based approach is the right way to deliver this.

Some of the new entrants in the UK telecoms market are granted special powers to assist in the installation of their systems. Those powers, known as Code powers, enable companies to lay cable in public streets without the need for separate licences from local highway authorities and give them access to accelerated planning procedures. With those rights come obligations. Telecoms operators, in common with all utilities, are subject to the New Roads and Street Works Act and its associated regulations. Operators' licences also contain a number of conditions designed to reduce the disruption resulting from streetworks activity. Those conditions are intended to reconcile concerns about protection of the environment will the overall benefit to consumers from increased competition and choice in telecommunications services. For example, their licence requires them to explore duct-sharing in order to reduce unnecessary digging; to install sufficient ducting for future growth in demand and so reduce the need for further streetworks; and to install ducting in footpaths rather than the road to minimise traffic disruption unless directed to do otherwise by highways authorities.

Many operators also pursue trench-sharing arrangements as a matter of course. It is in their interest to do so, not only to reduce the local impact of new construction, but also because of the cost benefits that duct trench-sharing affords. In Kent, for example, we understand that Level 3 Communications is sharing trench with at least one other operator on approximately 295 out of the 340 kilometres of duct being laid. In Parliament Square, as many noble Lords will testify, a number of operators have shared trenching.

Clearly, not ill licensees can dig up the public highway. Code powers are granted to those installing extensive infrastructure, in recognition of the importance of the services their networks can deliver. More than 80 telecoms operators have been granted those rights and use their powers differently depending upon the markets they serve. The principal categories of operator are mobile and radio fixed-access operators; cable companies; other fixed network operators; and international facilities operators. Mobile operators and radio fixed-access operators use their Code powers primarily to install masts.

The cable companies' Code powers are used to meet obligations to install local access networks to television and telephony. Their networks now pass 12.3 million homes, or 51 per cent of the population. It is estimated that total franchise coverage will be in the region of 70 per cent of total homes.

It is the last two categories—fixed network services for business and international communications—where we have seen the biggest rise in demand and increase in the number of operators. In fixed network services, at least half a dozen companies have built modern, national digital networks capable of carrying vast amounts of traffic. Several have built, are building, or are planning urban networks in London and other major cities. That has resulted in an intensely competitive market for transporting large volumes of traffic.

The volume of telecoms activity tends to be greatest where demand for high-speed, broadband service is highest. At the moment London is out in front in the use of digital technologies—65 per cent of business have dedicated websites and 83 per cent use external email. As demand for digital technologies increases throughout the country, so too will the need for new networks to meet that demand. This will not necessarily mean additional cabling activity; there will be the option in future for services to be delivered by radio. The Government intend to make available licences for radio spectrum later this year to provide broadband services.

In international communications traffic, the volume of streetworks is again a reflection of the UK's success. We were one of the first countries in the world to promote competition in telecoms infrastructure and we are the leading country in Europe in terms of ICT ownership and Internet use. The size of our telecoms market, and the telecoms expertise that is available here, has led many operators to choose London as the hub for their pan-European networks.

In a competitive world, pressures for more construction are inevitable. But the Government believe that we must take all the action we can to reduce the impact on people using our highways. The key to avoiding or minimising disruption from streetworks lies in a combination of measures, improving the existing controls and introducing new ones if there is a reasonable prospect of their being effective.

In answer to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, under the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991, in most cases undertakers must notify street authorities of proposed works. It is not correct to say, as the noble Lord, Lord Razzall, said, that there is no requirement to notify local authorities about streetworks post-1991. That is not accurate. The statutory undertakers have to notify highways authorities about impending works. The notice period varies according to the works and is longer when streets are traffic-sensitive. Authorities must keep a register of their own and the undertaker's works. This records notices, completed reinstatements and certain other information, and is increasingly reliant on electronic transmission via an Internet-based protocol.

Undertakers must reinstate the road to prescribed standards. Additionally, the authority carries out inspections of works, a proportion of them at the undertaker's expense. Where defects are found, further so-called "defect inspections" take place and are charged to the undertaker.

Undertakers must sign, guard and light their works in accordance with a statutory code of practice—the "safety code". In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, it is already a requirement on statutory undertakers to say who they are and to give a telephone number. We are consulting on what further information should be given. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, statutory undertakers are required to remove signing, guarding and lighting equipment no longer in use. If it is still there after the work is completed, it can be regarded as an obstruction of the highway and proceedings taken against the operator by the local authority.

Street authorities must co-ordinate works in their streets—their own, as well as those of the undertakers. Undertakers must co-operate with the authorities and with each other. Co-ordination and co-operation are general sorts of duty, but they are a starting point. They were an innovation of the 1991 Act and put on a statutory basis the principle of both sides getting together at a minimum of quarterly intervals to discuss planned works, bringing in other interested parties, including other utilities, the police and local businesses and residents, as necessary.

There are already specific constraints on traffic disruption available in the Act. Street authorities may lay down the timing of particular streetworks and they can intervene to restrain an undertaker from overstaying in the road.

The detailed requirements are in some cases undergoing revision in the light of experience and consultation. DETR colleagues are finalising a new edition of the safety code; consulting on a revised inspection scheme; and considering consultation responses on proposals for a new edition of the reinstatement specification.

The 1998 Transport White Paper, A New Deal for Transport—Better for Everyone, committed the Government to consult on options for an incentive system, with penalties, to minimise disruption to all road users, and to encourage improved co-ordination of streetworks". The consultation of October 1999 covered England only. In Scotland and Wales decisions about whether to consult on the introduction of parallel measures would be for the devolved administrations and, in Northern Ireland, for the Department for Regional Development.

The reason the Bill was blocked in the other place was that it occurred at the time of the consultation. As Government, we believe that if we are consulting people then we owe it to them to listen to their views before taking action.

The consultation document outlined two options which involve an element of charging as an incentive to efficient working, while not excluding other possibilities. These are, first, to activate unused powers in Section 74 of the 1991 Act to charge utilities for occupying the road for longer than an agreed period, and, secondly, to charge from the start of works. New legislation would be required to implement the latter option. It is proposed that highway authorities would be able to offset the costs of operating a system against the monies raised from levying these charges.

Analysis of the responses to the consultation has shown support for the Section 74 option to charge utilities for overstaying. The Government now intend to implement Section 74 and will work with the highway authorities and utilities to develop such a scheme.

I believe that this deals with the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Sandberg. It is important to remember that the highway authorities have powers to direct companies as to their hours of work. It should be said, however, that there are often environmental and safety reasons—for example, reducing noise in residential areas—why local authorities do not want the work to continue in the evening.

The responses to the consultation also showed a widespread recognition that highway authorities' own works were part of the wider problem of disruption to traffic. We want to ensure that they operate to the same high standards that we expect of utilities and we will be working with them to achieve that.

There was also a widespread feeling that existing arrangements under the New Roads and Street Works Act could and should be made to work better. We know that there are initiatives in train to that end. The City of London code of practice, which my noble friend, Lord Levene, mentioned, and the Central London Partnership's proposals are examples of this. The aim of the Central London Partnership is to ensure that in central London, where principal routes are the subject of major roadworks, alternative routes will be kept clear of such works. This will require a considerable degree of co-ordination between London boroughs and between highway authorities and utilities. The schemes will begin in May, with the participation of a number of London boroughs. If these schemes are successful, the Government would very much like to see them extended.

We want to build on ideas like that and the Government intend to work with utilities and authorities to develop best practice in the coordination of streetworks activity and in the quality of work—making sure that it is done efficiently and properly first time—so that the standards of all are raised to those of the best.

Taken together, these initiatives should allow us to make real progress in reducing the disruption that streetworks cause, also seeking to reduce accidents—the very important point raised by my noble friend Lord Davies of Oldham—

Lord Brougham and Vaux

My Lords, I have been listening very carefully to what the noble Lord has said. In the last six months in Westminster alone, once just outside Smith Square, Lloyds Bank dug a hole in the pavement which was there for a month; on another occasion, on the corner of Horseferry Road and Marsham Street, outside the new Department of the Environment, Transport, and the Regions building, there was a hole for three weeks.

I telephoned Westminster council on each occasion. On each occasion it said that it found it very difficult to get contractors to come back to rectify the work that they had left.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I appreciate that there are always incidents and cases to which one can point. In those cases it is for the local authority to take the appropriate action, and they do have the powers to do so.

The noble Lord, Lord Peyton, and my noble friend Lord Lipsey raised the question of a lane rental system. The consultation carried out by DETR included an option for lane rental. There was some support for this but not as much as for the Section 74 options that we are now intending to pursue. For the present we intend to concentrate on using the existing powers in Section 74, as well as working with utilities and highway authorities to develop best practice in streetwork operations.

Telecoms operators do already pay business rates on the infrastructure they install. The noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, raised the question of trenchless technology. There are research projects in this area, but these need further development before they can be widely used.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, gave me notice of the point he raised about the road between Matfield and Horsmonden in the Weald of Kent which was closed for four weeks. There are a number of quite special features about this particular situation. Level 3, the company involved, applied for a road closure zs this would allow the company to complete the work within a shorter space of time than would otherwise have been the case. In the case of Horsmonden there is 900 metres of road, work on which will take a month—partly because there is a bylaw which says that, for safety reasons, two gangs cannot work within two kilometres of each other; otherwise the time taken would be less.

There is a requirement under the notification procedures to discuss with the local authority and other interested parties, for example, people who have fronts on the road. They must also give notice of the expected duration of works to local authorities. Information must be placed on the register of streetworks, which is available for public inspection.

The point about the penalty for over-running will be dealt with by the application of Section 74 of the New Roads and Street Works Act.

Turning to the question of loss of trade during streetworks, which the noble Lord rightly pointed out is, from experience, a subject dear to my heart, there is no right in law to a given level of passing trade and no general liability to compensate for loss of trade resulting from fewer passers-by, except when something is done improperly. Sometimes businesses suffer temporary loss of trade owing to traffic flow disruption, along with other commercial uncertainties. The assessment is always difficult. What is a loss to one company is often of benefit to the other. The main difficulty in those circumstances, however, is to assess exactly what is the level of loss of trade which results from these works.

The Government are committed to ensuring the widespread availability of speedy access infrastructure at an affordable price. It is vital to the growth of e-commerce and the success of the British economy over the coming decade. This infrastructure inevitably involves new construction.

Real consumer benefits are accruing now and will continue long into the future, but the Government fully acknowledge the real concerns raised in this House today and more widely about the localised but often significant disruption that this construction can cause. The Government are committed to minimising this disruption by improving co-ordination of streetworks; by strengthening reinstatement requirements; by improving existing controls; and by looking at how the penalties can be imposed where the work takes longer than expected.

As I have made clear, we are very willing to consider new ideas about what more might be done, both in the context of the consultation by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions about the New Roads and Street Works Act, and in the context of the future reform of communication legislation, on which the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport are now starting work.

This is an important subject. As I hope my remarks have made clear, the Government are seeking to reduce disruptions while not delaying the immense benefits that will come from the widespread deployment of new communications technology.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, I have a question to ask. The noble Lord kindly referred to the case about which I gave him notice, but he did not say whether he is content with the present situation; namely, that a business is apparently entitled to no notice whatever from the contractor—the "authorised contractor", under the legislation of the noble Lord's department—as to when the works will take place or how long they vv ill take. Indeed, there is no estimate whatever. Is the Minister content that that situation should continue?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I thought I had made it clear that contractors are required to give notification and that they must notify the local authority as to the expected duration of the works. In this case, I believe that Level 3 Communications followed the procedure of handing out leaflets to residents. However, I have only just received this information. I shall look into the matter in more detail and if there are any further points that require action I shall most certainly write to the noble and learned Lord.

4.50 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, in an earlier intervention by the noble Baroness who I believe is one of the Government Whips it was suggested that someone was overspending his time in the debate. But the speaker was not doing so at all; indeed, I have been wondering why the situation has not been explained since then. However, be that as it may, I should like to take this opportunity to say a few words.

We regarded this debate—at least I did—as a transport debate. However, although we acknowledge his ability, his eloquence and his mastery of his subject, the Minister replied in a way that did not cover the subject about which we were talking. I happily acknowledge the presence in the Chamber of the Minister with responsibility for transport. It is awfully tiresome for a busy Minister who has no role to play in the debate to come here to listen to the debate. Therefore, I should like to salute and thank the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for his courtesy in being here and listening to what was said. Perhaps I may rub that point in a little by saying that I hope he will really reflect upon our debate from a transport point of view and that he will in due course take an opportunity to give us his views on the points raised today.

In the legislative cascade from which we suffer at present, I believe that we will be faced with a transport Bill before very long. I hope that the Government will be sufficiently in possession of their senses at that time to ensure that a transport Minister handles the Bill. I can promise the noble Lord that I shall be only too willing to help with all kinds of suggestions by way of amendments to the Bill which will give some effect to the points that we have raised today.

The noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, replied to the debate with the utmost courtesy. The first half of his speech was quite clearly written well before the debate. That part of the speech expressed the reasonable point of view held by those who work in and advise the DTI; but that was not what we were discussing. The noble Lord came round in the end to touching on the main debate. In so far as he did so, his reply, as I understood it, was to say that he was content with the present situation; that Section 74 was all right; and that the additional powers suggested by my honourable friend at the beginning of 1999—that is, powers to fine those who default on time—were not needed. I believe that the latter was an extremely reasonable suggestion. But, with respect, the reply that we have received from the Minister did not address the question as to why the Bill was blocked. We have not received a clear answer to that question. That legislation would have given the Government the possibility of taking useful action.

Had the problem been eased since my honourable friend made that gallant attempt, there would have been no serious grounds for complaint today. However, the problem has not eased; indeed, it has multiplied and become much worse and much more acute. The Minister then went on to say something that astonished me. I believe that I am the only other speaker in the debate to mention the White Paper.

I was astonished to hear a government spokesman refer to it as though it contained even a shred of an argument to back his inaction—

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord, but perhaps I may make it clear that I made a significant point with regard to the blocking of that Bill; namely, that it took place during the consultation process on the question of Section 74, which deals with the option to charge utilities. If I did not make myself clear, perhaps I may repeat what I said. The Government now intend to implement Section 74 and will work with highway authorities and utilities to develop a scheme that will charge for overstaying. I thought that I had made that clear. It seems to me that that is a significant response to the debate.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, to be fair, I did understand what the noble Lord said about the current consultation being the reason for blocking my honourable friend's Bill. However, I am afraid that I did not quite understand—though I do now—what followed. I understand the Minister to be saying that now the consultation is over the powers under Section 74 of the 1991 Act will be exercised—

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

That is correct.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

I am pleased to hear that, my Lords. In that case, we are at least taking a slight step forward. However, I hope that there will be other steps forward. One of the issues about which I am particularly concerned relates to local authorities. I have a great deal of sympathy with people who work on local authorities. Their powers have been filleted and their resources diminished, but at the same time their tasks and their responsibilities have been greatly multiplied. I was seeking a simple answer to the question: what are the Government going to do to fortify local authorities in order to enable them to perform their complicated and difficult tasks? They need both muscle and resources. But, as far as I can see, they are not going to get them.

In view of the time, all I can do now is to thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. However, I hope that I may register my sharp disappointment that the debate took on a DTI colour when what we were concerned with, both first and last, were transport problems. As I have no desire whatever to receive any Papers currently, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.