HL Deb 30 June 2000 vol 614 cc1161-77

11.6 a.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. If the rules of order only permitted it, I would prefer to move that this House do now adjourn and that those who are capable of walking quickly should take a stroll in the direction of Piccadilly Circus, in which case no further argument or debate would be called for. As it is, we must make do with the available procedure.

First, I remind your Lordships of a notable speech made by the Minister for Science, the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, on 5th April this year in reply to a Motion moved by myself. At that time he said that we were facing an "extremely serious situation". So far, he had your Lordships entirely with him. He then produced an astonishing announcement, coming from a government spokesman, when he said, "Our ears are open". Your Lordships will be aware that that is a very unusual posture for a government to assume. They are always terrified of hearing something they do not want to hear, or being given good advice which they will find almost irresistible.

The Minister went on to say that the Government were keen to ensure that disruption, is kept to a minimum".—[Official Report. 5/4/00; col. 1326.] I am not sure that even the passionate loyalty of the Minister who is responsible for replying to this debate will make it possible for him to say that they have been successful in their efforts in that regard.

The noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, added. at col. 1330, that, the Government now intend to implement Section 74". So far as most of us can see, nothing at all has happened since, although I believe the utilities have been busy lobbying the Government in order to frustrate their good intentions.

Let me turn briefly to the licensees, the 160 or more organisations which are allowed, with the minimum of notice or permission, simply to camp out on the roads and dig them up. Those representing the utilities seem to be totally and absolutely unaware of the irritation they cause to the legitimate users of the road who, again and again, throughout this country and not just in London, are frustrated in their quite lawful purposes of getting from A to B.

I received a letter not long ago, which I hope I can quote without giving offence, from a Mr David Nimmo who is chairman of the National Joint Utilities Group. In it he maintained that the utilities had every right to continue doing what they were doing and never referred to the irritation and congestion for which they are directly responsible. The general view of the licensees is that there are too many of them; that they make a mess; that they do not repair things when they finish; and that they take altogether too long. In short, they are an intolerable nuisance and do nothing to mitigate the effects of their activities upon the public.

I turn for a moment to the subcontractors. I should have thought it was totally acceptable that principals should be responsible for the skill, efficiency and organisation of the subcontractors. But, again and again, the utilities say, rather sheepishly, that they cannot control their subcontractors and the subcontractors act entirely independent of those who are instructing them. Again and again, the subcontractor digs a hole and just leaves it until it is convenient for the utilities—British Telecom, British Gas or whoever—to come along and do the work for which the hole was dug originally. The gap between the time when the subcontractor finishes the hole and the principal arrives on site to do what is required down that hole is intolerably long. In that regard, not for the first or last time, there is a total lack of co-ordination.

"Co-ordination" is one of those lost words which the Government relish. When they cannot think of anything else to say, they say they will "co-ordinate" things. But in so far as they allow themselves to use that word, it is only to show that they know of the word but have no intention of practising it.

I turn for a moment to the highway authorities, with whom I have a measure of sympathy. If they are going to perform a useful role, they require both the power and the resources necessary. But they sometimes forget that, as highway authorities, they have a duty to make movement possible. Again and again, not only do they fail to co-ordinate the people who dig holes in their roads, but when they themselves are executing works—the need for which in some cases is open to question—the efficiency with which they do so is notable by its total absence. Some highway authorities seem to believe that one of their prime duties is the defence of bridges; in other words, bridges are pieces of invaluable territory which should be denied at all costs to the enemy—and, I should remind noble Lords, that "the enemy" is you and me.

I do not wish to be too parochial but, for months and months, either side of Westminster Bridge has been a mess—

A noble Lord

It is better this side!

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

Heavens knows what they are going to do with the other side. They have spent a long time doing it; indeed, it is one of the most leisurely and useless operations I have ever seen. Perhaps one ought to try to find who is responsible—if any thinking human being could be—for such gross confusion and a situation where nothing whatever is achieved. I return to the word "co-ordinate". It would be awfully nice if the noble Lord could run classes in his department for highway authorities through which they could be instructed how to spell the word "co-ordinate" and then be told what it means and how to practise it.

I turn briefly, because I wish to avoid any distasteful subjects, to the Highways Agency. This agency used to put up notices saying, "We apologise for any delay". Those concerned do not seem to understand how irritating such notices are; for example, those appalling notices which show up in lights along motorways indicating that the limit to the speed at which you can travel is 50 miles per hour. It is slightly irritating to people who have not been able to get to 5 miles per hour during the previous half-hour.

I wish to be totally fair in my remarks and, therefore, I should not like to leave out the DTI, which, of course, has absolutely no interest in movement at all. Indeed, stagnation is nearer to what the department specialises in. Movement is something it views with great hostility and is quite successful in frustrating. This is the department that has distributed the licences in question to all its friends in the same way that some of us send Christmas cards to people one does not see very often. The Christmas card serves as a reminder of your existence. It is a gentle indication that you are very fond of them and remember them and, indeed, wish to be remembered by them. That is the sort of relationship I suspect exists between the DTI and the host of people to whom it gives licences. Perhaps they could just be told to move by the Minister. However, I do know that Ministers who are responsible for transport are not always much listened to by their colleagues. Quiet and modest, as always—it has been the case for a very long time—they are rewarded by total inattention from their colleagues.

I turn for a moment to the Department of Transport—poor lost souls. I have great regard, even affection, for them. But, every now and again, I wish that they could be given the loan of some teeth. The noble Lord has a great role to play here. If he could only fit his department with an acceptable set of dentures, heaven knows what his officials could achieve! It is, perhaps, the lack of anything else to do. It seems to me that the people in the noble Lord's department simply spend their time—perhaps at the behest of that all-powerful figure the Secretary of State—thinking up ways in which they can make motorists pay more than they already pay. Motorists may have to pay some sort of charge for the congestion that they cause; but, at the same time, these pestilential people who go and dig up our already narrow roads are let off scot-free with no payment at all.

Again, as I do not wish to leave anyone out, I have a suspicion that somewhere at the bottom of the heap, and making a sort of quiet contribution to all this, is the Treasury—wedded, as it is, to existing procedures and always supporting short-term considerations. I hope that it will not stand in the way—as I suspect it does—of new technologies. I had a communication the other day from a society promoting trenchless technology. I have nothing to do with that matter and I do not know the society concerned. However, I very much hope that someone will consider this other way of carrying out necessary work in the neighbourhood of the highways without the hideous interruptions that now routinely occur and which we are asked to regard as inevitable.

There are various lessons to be learned here. I do not wish to seem too pious but I hope I may put forward three points which I think the Minister would do well to support and amplify. First, efficiency and good manners are commendable. If those who conduct their works on the road were to be efficient and show that they had good manners, they might make their large, powerful organisations, and the privileges they enjoy, more acceptable to the public.

Secondly, I return to the matter of co-ordination which has almost disappeared from action; it has a place only in the language. Thirdly, in my view the Government simply cannot and must not continue to stand aside and tolerate delay while the congestion for which they are indirectly responsible is allowed to continue to the intense annoyance of legitimate users of the road. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.— (Lord Peyton of Yeovil.)

11.21 a.m.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, I rise to second the Motion moved by the noble Lord, Lord Peyton.

I am most anxious—I believe that noble Lords have this in common—that somehow some way must be found to ensure that the costly dislocation caused by the spate of roadworks over the past six months is not repeated. In short, we have to do something about it. I belong to that generation of politicians who have immense admiration for the work of those dedicated civil servants and parliamentary counsel who draft our laws and, in various ways, pilot them through both Houses of Parliament. When the recent debacle started to occur—this still, incidentally, continues in parts of London—I immediately bethought me of Section 74 of the 1991 Act that passed through your Lordships' House and the Commons without over much disagreement. I read it again. It seems to me on the face of it that, provided the provisions of the Act are properly enforced, there probably would not be over much trouble.

I say that despite two factors. Our existing troubles have stemmed from two factors. The first is an inclination on the part of local authorities—particularly those sections concerned with transport—to spend any surpluses they might have at the end of the financial year. As noble Lords probably know, any surpluses at the end of the year are by Treasury tradition repatriated to the Treasury and form the basis of the following year's money that the authority will receive. This has gone on for a long time. If I may hazard a guess, this has occurred on an even greater scale since the present Government have been in office. I have personally witnessed that ingredient on the various roads that I have travelled on.

Where I live it is undoubtedly the case that in the few weeks or months preceding 31st March holes and trenches suddenly appear in the roads all over the place. They are dug, then left for two or three days while the tea brews and then are resumed without any further indication of action. Those works last for ever. It is not just a question of works being carried out in separate places; sometimes they are carried out in the same place two or three times within a month or six weeks. Local authorities which have surpluses on their transport account have an inbuilt desire to commence a spate of repairs before the end of the financial year.

However, this time we have a different ingredient altogether. When the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, first eloquently and properly raised the matter in your Lordships' House, I was most puzzled to discover that the Minister who replied was the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, from the Department of Trade. I wondered why he should shoulder the onerous responsibility of trying to account for roadworks that are being carried out all over the capital city of the United Kingdom at the instigation of people other than local authorities. Noble Lords who were present in the Chamber at the time were told that 86 general licences had been granted to the cable and communications industries without any particular conditions attached. They were certainly not explicitly subject to the provisions of Section 74 of the 1991 Act.

The Minister expatiated at some length on that matter. He indicated that these events were inevitable and that the communications industry and information technology constituted a valuable export for the United Kingdom and would contribute enormously to the country's future economy, and that therefore these foreign companies with British subcontractors should be allowed to do more or less what they liked. They operate under no inhibitions at all. I plead in my support those sections of Hansard to which the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, made such a notable contribution.

Therefore, we have a situation in which parliamentary responsibility, at any rate temporarily, seems to have been taken over by the Department of Trade and Industry. I was reminded by my own Front Bench that the Prime Minister decides which ministry will deal with which matter. I can only assume l hat the Prime Minister gave instructions for the matter to be dealt with in both Houses by the Department of Trade and Industry. I do not believe that the matter has been dealt with with any degree of satisfaction because the problem has continued.

The problem is one of enforcement of the law as it now stands, perhaps with the amendment now proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Peyton. The law needs to be enforced without delay as, on the basis of current statements, the trouble will continue. That means that a large section of the population, notably those who inhabit the largest capital city in the world and those who make use of its roads and parking, will continue to be inconvenienced. I hope that your Lordships agree that this should stop.

The Government are all powerful; they can do exactly what they want. They have the means, in other words, to order people to do so and so and to check upon their progress. They can even form focus groups to investigate, report on and, possibly, enforce compliance—bearing in mind, of course, that some members of focus groups are themselves members of various industries, not excluding the construction industry. The Government have the power to do that.

Why then, when we have that power, do we not exercise it? I can only assume that some of the arts of planning for enforcement—that is to say, making an objective assessment of resources and facilities prior even to an Act being enacted—are not being carried out. It means, simply, that this operation—which has cost millions and millions of pounds by way of a novel form of indirect taxation to carry out in extenso—need never have happened in the first place had there been proper planning at ministry level—and, indeed, ultimately, at Minister level. I offer Ministers the only excuse that I can: that they are overworked, have little time to think, practically no time to read, and act on a day-to-day basis without having the remotest idea of what they are inflicting on the United Kingdom population.

I sincerely hope that when the noble Lord—who is one of the most amiable Peers in your Lordships' House—comes to reply, he will be able to explain not only some of the gross planning errors that have taken place over the past six months, but to give us some hope that the Government will take this matter by the scruff of the neck and solve it without further delay.

11.32 a.m.

Lord Monson

My Lords, nothing better illustrates the need for a Bill of this kind than the fact that an unexpected encounter with just the kind of problems it seeks to address caused me to miss the first two-thirds of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, for which I apologise.

We must all be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, for introducing this very topical and much-needed Bill. If, after modification in Committee, it becomes law, it will go some way towards making daily life less difficult, not only for motorists but for all those who travel by bus.

One of the Bill's great merits is that it gets away from the idea that imposing penalties can solve the problem. Certainly penalties may have a role to play, but they are by no means the sole or even the main answer. The best solution is surely a market solution—which is, in essence, what the Bill provides for. Companies dig up roads—or have roads dug up on their behalf—not for fun but in order to make higher profits, if not in the short term, then certainly in the longer term. There is nothing wrong with that. But they should be prepared to pay—or, if one prefers, invest—in order to secure those profits, given that the disruption necessarily involved greatly inconveniences others.

As the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said, when speaking from the Government Back Benches in our debate on this subject on 5th April, 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".—[Official Report, 5/4/00; col. 1309.] One cannot better that.

But it is not a zero-sum game since the financial outlay involved would provide a strong incentive to complete the necessary works much more swiftly and efficiently. A report in the Evening Standard on 28th June, two days ago, revealed that the Corporation of the City of London, mindful of the burdens that traffic disruption imposes upon the City, has initiated a ducting network, accessed by manholes, three miles in length, which should cut roadworks in the City by as much as one-third by next year. This shows how much things can be improved when people really try and apply their minds to the problem—stimulated by financial considerations, of course.

I submit that the Bill in its final form should not be restricted to the utilities, the TV cable companies and their agents because there are others who are responsible for blocking the Queen's highway. As the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, said in opening his debate on 5th April, those who use the highway for the purposes of their business should pay for the privilege".—[Official Report, 5/4/00; col. 1307.] I may be wrong, but I am sure that the noble Lord was thinking that everyone who "sterilised" the highway should pay, not merely those who dig holes in it.

Most noble Lords who live or work in central or west London will have experienced the blocked road and consequent serious congestion in Beauchamp Place. This has lasted for several months—it delayed me this morning because it has got a lot worse since last week—and was caused by the collapse of two or three 18th century buildings. Noble Lords will also know of the lesser but still serious congestion in Knightsbridge caused by the expensive conversion of the former Hyde Park Hotel into the doubtless more profitable Mandarin Oriental. In justice, surely the leaseholders or freeholders should have compensated motorists for the Beauchamp Place congestion and the wealthy Mandarin Oriental group should have compensated them for the Knightsbridge congestion.

But that is a matter to be addressed in Committee. I trust that the House will willingly give this valuable Bill a Second Reading.

11.36 a.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, I have sought permission to speak in the gap very briefly. After the brilliant, powerful and witty speech of my noble friend, I have nothing of consequence to add.

But I have a kind of constituency—indeed, we all have. Perhaps I may refer to taxi drivers. A taxi driver told me this story, which I thought might add to the interest of the occasion. He said that a man quite recently walked out of the town hall in Cardiff and came upon three men sitting around a hole. They had a birthday cake with one candle on it, and they were singing "Happy Birthday". So he stopped and asked them, "Whose birthday is it?"; and they said, "The hole's".

11.37 a.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

Follow that, my Lords. We owe the noble Lord, Lord Peyton of Yeovil, a debt of gratitude for introducing this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Monson, missed a treat by not hearing the first two-thirds of the noble Lord's speech. It was so splendidly witty that it is impossible to try to contest even the most outrageous and elaborate of the noble Lord's elegant and armour-piercing insults. I shall not even attempt to do so. I shall read them again; I think that we shall all treasure them.

My personal experience in this matter started many years ago when my husband and I decided that the Kings Road was a kind of test bed for entrepreneurial road diggers, and that the (then existing) GLC allowed them to practise their skills on that piece of road. In the 20 years that we drove up and down from Richmond, it was never not under repair at some point or other; it was never free of holes on a single day that we attempted to drive along it.

I later came across the problem of roadworks as a county councillor. I was elected in 1985 and I served on the highways and transport committee for the subsequent 12 years. An early lesson in how to deal with the utilities was given by a fellow councillor from the same district when, for the second time in a year, roadworks in Dorking—this time caused by a need for new telephone lines—threatened access for shoppers and, therefore, local livelihoods. Meanwhile, local radio networks were just getting into gear—there were more of them then in our part of the world than there are now—and they were all delighted to tell their listeners that you could not go to Dorking to shop because the roads were up; or not to visit Epsom under any circumstances because something was going wrong. Long after the roadworks had finished, those voices of doom were still discouraging people from coming to shop in those towns. So there are many enemies of local shopkeepers in our smaller towns.

As a former diplomat, that local councillor displayed great guile in reaching his objectives. First, he wangled concessions as to the timing of the work to avoid Christmas, the routing of the cables to avoid the worst bottlenecks and the availability of a named person to field complaints and so on. Secondly—this was the real key to the matter—he finalised these discussions with the undertaker at a public meeting at which other local elected officials, including myself, the chamber of commerce and individual retailers, county and district officers and the local papers were present. It was impossible for the undertaker to wriggle out of his commitment. That is an excellent example of the value of what today is called "transparency".

It is difficult to remember that 15 years ago there was virtually no cabling, few utility companies and few statutory undertakers. It was their proliferation which led to the 1991 Act. That Act brought some practical benefit in terms of better restitution and led to the lane rental approach operated on the motorways. The noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, on the Opposition Front Bench is shaking his head. That ability to fine people working on the motorways if they spent longer on the work than they had undertaken to spend was extremely useful.

Another problem arises from companies' understandable reluctance to anticipate future works—the programmed laying of additional telephone lines, cables, drains, water mains and so on—when a road is up for another undertaker's work. The classic result is the reappearance of the drills, holes, cones and other paraphernalia a few weeks after the first group has left. If only people could be encouraged to ask, "What am I doing in the next six months?" and "Could I not fix the line underneath the road while the other guys are laying their bit, even if I do not attach it at both ends to its final objective?" That would prevent a great many of the difficulties from which we all suffer.

The noble Lord, Lord Peyton, mentioned the question of trenchless techniques, a point which he raised in a Question in your Lordships' House a little while ago. Those techniques make it possible to put through all these services without digging up the road. As he said, such equipment exists. It was interesting for me to learn that, according to one of the promoters of such a system, its use is declining. One asks oneself why. The answer is that the equipment is quite expensive and is difficult to move. The contractors do so much profitable work using their more traditional techniques that there is no incentive to invest in new techniques. As the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, said, the DETR should pay attention to this problem. Dare I suggest a review, or perhaps an application of the Deputy Prime Minister's famous ability for "knocking heads together", in order to try to encourage or persuade contractors to be more up to date in a bid to deal more fairly with the public?

The issue of holes in the road, apart from being the absolute mainspring of what used to be regarded as the Liberal preserve of footpath politics, has implications not only for the commercial and business economy of towns, large and small, but also for road safety. Holes in the road cause delay; delays cause frustration; frustration causes road rage, or at least more aggressive driving; and rage and aggression cause accidents.

The proposed Bill contains some partial solutions to the problem. A financial penalty could perhaps have an effect on attitudes to scheduling of works to fit in with other undertakers' activities. It might reduce the length of time that any given set of works takes. It might discourage the irritating interruptions of work on existing sites. It might encourage principals to put pressure on contractors to behave better and so generally reduce delays in the completion of works. But the chief merit of this debate will, it is to be hoped, be to stimulate fresh government thinking on this widespread problem. We await with great interest the response of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty.

11.45 a.m.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to my noble friend Lord Peyton of Yeovil for introducing his Bill today and also for the persistence with which he has pursued this subject over the past few months. My noble friend has already achieved two great successes, one of which is that he has persuaded the Government finally to introduce Section 74 of the New Roads and Street Works Act. Incidentally, he has made Section 74 oft he Act almost as famous as another section which your Lordships continually debate. I hope that we shall hear today from the Government about how they intend to go ahead with that.

My noble friend referred to a letter he received—although the letter did not satisfy him—from the industry itself. Nevertheless, he must have made the industry well aware of the concerns not only of this House but of the general public.

The Bill gives us the opportunity to probe the Government on how they intend to introduce the regulations under Section 74 of the Act. I wish to raise two particular issues, one of which I think was covered slightly at Question Time the other day. First, what will be the scale of charge on the utilities for occupying the highway? The difference between the regulations and the Bill is that the charge will not start on day one, so to speak, but the utilities and the highway authorities will have somehow to agree on how long particular works should take; and if they exceed that length of time, the charge will come into effect. That is similar, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, said, to the lane rental scheme operated on the motorways. I do not think that the New Road and Street Works Act had anything to do with the introduction of lane rental. That was a direct administrative and contractual arrangement between the Highways Agency, or, in those days, the Department of Transport, and the particular contractors. It has been a very great success. There are now many occasions when roadworks are completed in a much shorter space of time than would have been the case in the old days.

When my noble friend Lord Peyton first started raising this issue I was slightly surprised, as I know my noble friend was, that we continually received replies from the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, at the Department of Trade. He very much concentrated on the issue of the cable companies. Of course the problems lie not just with the cable companies. I am persuaded, as he tried to persuade us, that indeed we have to move ahead with new technology. But there are also the older, more traditional utilities—gas, water and electricity. A large programme of modernisation and investment needs to take place in the water industry, partly at the Government's instigation—quite rightly—to cure the problem of leaks in the water mains. On the other side of the coin, as a consumer of Thames Water, as most of your Lordships no doubt are, what slightly worries me is that if Thames Water is charged large amounts of money for digging holes in the road, only one group of people will pay for that at the end of the day. That is us.

Lord Monson

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for allowing me to intervene. Does he agree that, although the noble Lord may have to pay a little more on his water bill, he will pay less in other areas, such as reduced petrol tax going to the Exchequer through lower compensating tax rates?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord is right. However, once the penalty money has been paid to the local authority, who knows where it might go then?

Secondly, I turn to the question of deciding on the proper length of time for any works. I foresee some difficulties as regards the negotiations that will obviously need to take place between the local highway authority and the utility. At the end of the day, who will take the decision on what should be an appropriate length of time? Different circumstances will apply. Roadworks tend to be noisy, so it is clearly undesirable that such works should be carried out during the night in residential areas. In non-residential areas it should be possible to work for 24 hours a day. However, certain roads are so busy—I am thinking in particular of the A3 at Hindhead, because the problem is not restricted to London—that streetworks can take place only for a limited number of hours in the middle of the night, thus spreading them over a fairly long period of time. No doubt other circumstances can arise which I have not covered. All those factors need to be taken into account. I shall he interested to hear what the Minister has to say about the Government's thinking in this area.

My noble friend Lord Peyton and the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, mentioned trenchless technology. I was introduced to that technology by the late Lord Nugent of Guildford, who was a great enthusiast. Ten or 12 years ago, he took me to an exhibition and demonstration of how it works. I am sorry to say that very little progress seems to have been made in the intervening period. As already explained, the technology uses a mechanical mole to drag piping or cabling under the ground, thus causing no disruption at street level. Under the provisions set out in Clause 1(3)(c) of this Bill, incentives could be offered to encourage the use of trenchless technology. I hope also that the Minister will be able to tell us that, under the regulations he can bring in under Section 74 of the 1991 Act, some form of incentive could be introduced. The noble Baroness told the House that it is an expensive process, but, my goodness, it offers enormous advantages for the road user because only small holes are dug to put the machinery in place and the remainder of the road is left undisturbed.

I shall speak briefly on my final point. A number of noble Lords have referred to the local highway authorities themselves. It is not only the utility companies which mess up the roads. In certain cases—it has happened close to where I live in London—one is filled with gloom when a notice is erected saying something along the lines of, "Roadworks: expect delays for 25 weeks". Can the Government encourage a sense of urgency in local authorities and ensure that they get on with the job? Presumably guidance will he issued to the utilities on how they should approach their work. I hope that such guidance can be extended to local highway authorities.

To close, I wish the Bill well and I look forward to hearing the Minister's response.

11.53 a.m.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, a number of noble Lords have already referred to the eloquence and wit of the noble Lord, Lord Peyton of Yeovil, when introducing this subject. It is a serious matter and, as the noble Lord said, the Government have indicated that their ears are open. I do not regard that as a particularly unusual posture for this Government. However, as regards this issue, we would be rather foolish were our ears not to be at least partly cocked to the voices ranged around the House. As the noble Baroness, Lady Park, pointed out, once those voices are combined with those of taxi drivers, it is clear that we are dealing with a popular call which the Government would be foolish to ignore.

I can assure noble Lords that we regard this as a serious matter. It can and does lead to frustration on the roads and thus the inevitable consequences described by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas. Incidentally, with reference to the account given by the noble Baroness, Lady Park, of the taxi driver's tale of the workmen and the birthday candle, I do hope that it was not a gas hole!

Reference was made in the debate as to exactly where the responsibility lies in this area. Perhaps I may offer a little clarification. It is well known that in this matter, as in others, we operate joined-up government. My views, along with those of my noble friends Lord Sainsbury and Lord Macdonald, have been expressed on different occasions when replying to the noble Lord, Lord Peyton. I can tell noble Lords why different Ministers are called upon to reply on different occasions. Some roadworks are local highway authority works and are thus directly the responsibility of local authorities, overseen by my department. Responsibility for the licensing arrangements governing works undertaken by the majority of utility and cable companies rests with the Department of Trade and Industry. However, the water industry is also a matter in which my department has an interest. I hope that clarifies, at least in part, the departmental responsibilities.

It will be clear to noble Lords that a balance needs to be maintained between the transport and traffic disruption aspect and the need to ensure that we maintain uninterrupted supplies of gas, electricity and water, as well as gaining the benefits of the new technologies being introduced in telecommunications—a point that has been made on previous occasions by my noble friend Lord Sainsbury. Inevitably this leads to a need to dig up the roads. Indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, said, in the case of water, there is a clear and important need to improve the quality of water pipework in central London. Furthermore, in terms of telecommunications, we have seen an explosion in the growth of telecoms companies. Most business premises in London require ever greater access to new cabling. We must recognise that benefits accrue to the community through streetworks, as well as disbenefits in terms of irritating delays in traffic flow.

On several occasions noble Lords have spoken of the high level of disruption caused by works on behalf of telecommunications companies. Interestingly, although earlier in the year a significant proportion of central London appeared to have been dug up by the cable companies, when I checked Westminster City Council's streetworks list for this week, I found that the balance is now rather different. Of the 18 or so major schemes on traffic-sensitive streets, five are concerned with the local authority's own activities, seven are the responsibility of Transco, the gas supplier, two concern electricity, two concern telecommunications and one is the result of a major construction project along the lines described by the noble Lord, Lord Monson. I believe that that list demonstrates how the balance is now moving away from such an emphasis on telecommunications works.

However, as my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington pointed out, a significant number of the companies licensed to operate roadworks under the code of practice and with due notification are telecommunications companies. Of the 145 different organisations registered nationwide, 93 of them are telecommunications licensees. However, as regards the traditional utilities, usually only one company can carry out such works in a given area. However, in terms of new competition and the liberalisation of communications, I am sure that most noble Lords would agree that it is important to retain a reasonably open licensing system. Nevertheless, we are aware that the benefits of open competition must be balanced against the disbenefits of needing to issue a large number of licences.

We recognise the difficulties of this situation. At the turn of the year we engaged in a consultation that was completed in late January or early February. The consultation covered two options: first, to consider the use of the existing powers conferred by Section 74 of the 1991 Act; secondly, to consider implementing a lane rental scheme along the lines of that set out in the noble Lord's Bill. On 5th April, during the short debate on an Unstarred Question tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, my noble friend Lord Sainsbury announced that we would press ahead with the option to charge utilities for over-staying. Since 5th April, the highways authorities and utilities have been working with the department, and the set of regulations that will be required to trigger that section will be produced by the end of this month, as was indicated a few days ago by my noble friend Lord Macdonald. The intention is that those orders will be laid before the House for debate in the autumn, and, it is to he hoped, before the end of this parliamentary Session. Thai is the timetable.

The Section 74 power relates to over-staying. It will in effect be a penalty for inefficiency or for overstaying the time agreed with the highways authorities. It will not be a "from day one" cost. We are therefore giving ourselves indentures, and the House will be asked to approve the provision when we return in the autumn.

This is not, however, all that is going on. In parallel, we are trying to encourage best practice in roads and street works by the highways authorities as well as by the utility companies. Just last week, we saw an example of that kind of initiative. To use its own title, "Making Street Works Work" has been put together by the Central London Partnership. I know that the regard of the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, for the word "co-ordination" is slightly metaphysical in this context, but this is co-ordination actually in progress. It draws in most of the central London local authorities and the 25 utilities with the power to engage in street works. My colleague, Keith Hill, has brought the authorities together in that partnership, and the outcome will be to improve the position in central London. We believe that more co-ordination between highways authorities, the utilities and others is possible. The noble Lord, Lord Levene, intervened in the previous debate to indicate what the City of London has done. Reference was also made by the noble Lord, Lord Monson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, to trenchless technology, which is being encouraged in the City scheme.

There are certainly substantial technological possibilities. Techniques for laying cables and pipes, including re-lining old pipes without having to dig full-length trenches, are being developed by utilities across the country and are encouraged by the codes of practice. These methods are, of course, more expensive than traditional ways of digging up roads. The techniques can, however, be further developed. Were we to go down either the road suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, in his Bill, or that of imposing charges on overstay by the triggering of Section 74, the relative economics might well improve and, therefore, trenchless activity might be the optimal solution in far more circumstances—and we should not, therefore, have the cost and logistical problems referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, in the encouragement of trenchless technology.

Meanwhile, there are standing instructions as to how this work can be carried out. The local authorities have some powers in this area in terms of enforcement, quality control and of requiring notification and requiring making good. The code of practice which applies to the local authorities, which is in a "Pink Book" to which I have had previous occasion to refer in this House. There is also an equivalent "Blue Book" dealing with the utilities' responsibilities in these areas. I accept that not always are they observed as well as they should be. Certainly the greater attention to this by both the department and my colleagues in the DTI and the local authorities will ensure that some of the failure to observe all the terms of those codes of practice should be addressed more forcefully and robustly in future—for example, the fact that there is no requirement for road works to indicate who is ultimately responsible, or in some cases even the name of the contractor and a telephone number for complaints, all of which should be required under the code of practice.

However, co-ordination is improving. I have talked about the provisions in central London. What is important is a determined willingness on the part of the utilities companies. The noble Lord, Lord Peyton, may have been concerned that he did not receive much impression of movement in the letter to which he referred. Certainly, our experience in recent weeks of bringing the companies together in the Central London Partnership and in working together on the regulations for Section 74, is that the utilities are aware of the need to move in this area. Indeed, there is also some economic and logistical pressure for companies to co-operate. Work on one of the holes in the road outside this House to which noble Lords made reference was a good example, in that no fewer than five cable companies were using the same hole at the same time. If we could encourage that to apply across the board, the amount of disruption would be significantly less.

That is the background. In relation to the specifics of the Bill, clearly the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, is moving to full lane rental. As the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, said, it has worked well in terms of maintenance subcontracting on the inter-urban highway agency network. In this context, there are a number of points in favour of that approach. It could provide an incentive to earlier completion of the works, to the sharing of trenches and to more effective coordination. It should also provide a lever to utilities finding more efficient, less disruptive, more technologically advanced ways of carrying out their work, and it could also generate more revenue for local authorities, at least if it was prior to all the efficiency gains being made, than would the Section 74 provisions.

Against that, there is the problem of the additional cost to the utilities. Some of that cost could be significantly offset by less disruptive techniques and more co-ordination. But inevitably, as the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, indicated, some of that cost would be passed on to domestic and commercial consumers, particularly the utilities' costs, where there is relatively little competition; in the area of cable, there is more competition to keep costs down, but nevertheless there are costs that could be passed on. Therefore, we must achieve a balance between the interests of road users and residents who are inconvenienced by the works and the interests of the customers (who are often the same people) of the utilities and cable facilities.

We are not necessarily saying that we should oppose lane rental. Indeed, in my view, we might well need the whole range of options to tackle this problem sufficiently. What we are saying, however, is that we can immediately use the legislation which, thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, is already on the statute book, and we are moving as rapidly as the process allows to put that provision in place.

The Bill would rule out that option. It deals only with full lane rental. We may well wish to look at full lane rental, particularly after we have seen how well the Section 74 provision works. But it would be a major incentive in itself to hurry up and co-ordinate on these holes in the ground and we already have the legislation to do so. To replace that provision completely, as the Bill as currently drafted would do, would mean that the Section 74 provisions would fall. That is the reason why, despite my deep sympathy with the noble Lord's intentions, and recognising that we may need the power as an additional power at some later date, I could not support the Bill in its present form. No doubt at future stages of the Bill, and indeed in discussions on the Transport Bill, we shall return to this matter. We are pressing ahead with the decisions that we have already announced. I have set out the timetable and who is responsible. I am sure that noble Lords will wish to support the Government in that respect. For the moment, I cannot give my full-hearted support to the Bill; however, I very much share his intentions and those of all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate, and I am sure many more besides.

12.9 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, I should like to begin my brief remarks by saying that the noble Lord who has replied to the debate and who is responsible for this matter on behalf of the Government has a beguiling way of, first of all, listening, and then, in the course of his reply, referring to what has been said. Not all of his colleagues do that. It sweeps me off my feet with admiration, which is probably only temporary. Nevertheless, for the moment, he leaves me almost, but not quite, speechless.

I should have explained at the beginning that the Bill is a measure to charge licensees £1,000 per day or part of a day that they occupy any road, street or piece of road or street. It is a not a Bill that I would go to the stake for; far from it. However, I hope that in due course it will receive its Third Reading and be passed by your Lordships' House. It is intended as a warning, a prod, to substitute action for the totally static lack of progress that we have been enduring for some time.

I am very grateful for what the noble Lord was kind enough to say about my remarks. In his speech he referred to "co-ordination", using the word several times. He said that co-ordination is in progress. That is wonderful news. However, we shall need evidence before too long that it is happening. The noble Lord also said that co-ordination is improving. Again, that is something that we are very pleased to hear. He used a string of adjectives. I noted them and was greatly impressed by them: "forcefully", "robustly", "rapidly". Those words were music to my ears. I hope that the noble Lord will continue to sing from that hymn sheet.

I do not want to detain your Lordships, but I cannot refrain mentioning that the idea of five cable companies sharing one hole must be an almost unsurpassed example of neighbourliness. One can only hope that that sort of harmony will continue in the future.

I should like to say one word to my noble friends on the Front Bench. I do not always thank them very much, but I do so today. I particularly thank my noble friend Lord Brabazon of Tara for the support and encouragement he has given me throughout this operation. I should also like in his absence—I hope without embarrassing him—to express my gratitude to the Government Chief Whip for his sympathetic approach to my problem, which was finding the time for your Lordships' House to consider this Bill.

I am extremely grateful to all of your Lordships who have taken part in the debate and am most touched by what noble Lords have been kind enough to say about the efforts I have made to draw attention to what I think is a serious problem.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.