HL Deb 03 May 2000 vol 612 cc1015-8

3.1 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil asked Her Majesty's Government:

For what reasons traffic in Piccadilly is to be reduced to one lane each way for a further 12 months and whether they will use their best endeavours to speed things up.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, cabling work begun earlier this year in Piccadilly is now complete. Transco and British Telecom are now due to carry out limited work. I understand that as the highway authority Westminster City Council is doing all that it can to minimise inconvenience and disruption.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, it is not just Piccadilly. Does the noble Lord recall that 84 telecommunications companies have recently added their names to a list of those who can, at will, muck up the highway? Does the Minister agree that they are free to delay, daily, damage and upset others at what is becoming known as a gentlemanly pace; in other words, they are not in a hurry and take a good deal of time off in the middle of the work? Does the noble Lord agree that the time has passed for doing nothing and that the chairmen and chief executives of those companies should be reminded that they are behaving with an almost unique blend of incompetence, arrogance and slovenliness? As they are inconveniencing members of the public who pay for the use of the roads, is it not a good idea that, as a matter of urgency, they should be made to pay a heavy charge?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, by now I am quite clear that the noble Lord and several others are upset by this activity, and that a number of members of the public share their views. As my noble friend Lord Sainsbury pointed out recently in a debate initiated by the noble Lord, it is important to recognise that this is part of a process of modernising and liberalising the telecommunications system of central London. Therefore, this will benefit businesses and the citizens of London. It is true that there are inconveniences, some of which would probably have been avoidable had greater co-ordination been achieved. Westminster City Council, in relation to Piccadilly and Westminster, together with the City of London—the noble Lord, Lord Levene, spoke in the same debate—and other local authorities are attempting to bring together the various bodies with the right to lay cable and pipelines to try to co-ordinate the work better. As we also indicated in that debate, the Government intend to trigger Section 74 of the New Roads and Street Works Act which will enable us to charge for overstay. We do not rule out further measures to ensure that this is effective in limiting the amount of time spent on such works and ensuring that they are co-ordinated efficiently.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I agree with every word uttered by the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, except that I believe that he spoke excessively moderately? The random digging up of roads is becoming something between a farce and a national scandal, and some control must be exercised. At present one cannot turn right out of your Lordships' House. Is the Minister aware— I do not see why he should be—that my late father-in-law when town clerk of Westminster for many decades refused to allow any roadworks in the City of Westminster when Parliament was in session? He might start with that. This is a national not just a parliamentary or London issue. Some control over this matter must be exercised by the noble Lord's department, even before a London mayor gets to grips with it.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, as the reference to the noble Lord's father-in-law implies, in most cases the responsibility rests primarily with the local authority. However, local authorities have limited powers. In response to the noble Lord, who is such a constitutionalist, I hate to suggest that his relative might well have been exceeding his powers in preventing the utilities digging up the roads. The problem is that, as the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, indicated, today we are not dealing simply with the traditional utilities, but also with a whole range of cable companies which require access to what is a very intensive commercial base in central London. I hesitate to say that the big wave of such activity is beginning to die down. I suspect that central London has largely been cabled, although we have not reached the end of it. The noble Lord is right to say that this will arise in other parts of the country. For that reason we propose to trigger Section 74 of the legislation. We are looking at other means of imposing a cost—and therefore an incentive to carry out this work in a more sensible way.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there is another side to it" Will the Minister congratulate the contractors on demonstrating that one lane in Piccadilly is quite sufficient? Will he go further and suggest that that should be converted into a bus lane and that the pavements should be widened, as should those on Regent Street?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the greater provision of bus lanes within our inner cities is primarily a matter for Westminster City Council, which will look at Piccadilly, and for other authorities in line with their own, and our, integrated transport approach, of which I approve.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes

My Lords, is the Minister aware that his description of the disruption as an "inconvenience" is a total understatement? Does the noble Lord agree that such works bring intolerable chaos to the roads of London which harms the environment and has many other adverse side effects? Is the Minister aware that, for example, only today I passed three sites where in each case roadworks had been completed days and weeks before and yet no one had uncovered the parking meters which had been out of use during that time? Therefore, due to lack of coordination people were unable to park in those areas for many days, sometimes weeks, longer than would otherwise have been the case.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the noble Baroness rightly refers to the issue of co-ordination both among the utility and cable companies and between them and the highways authorities. The central London boroughs and the City of London are taking initiatives in this respect. The powers to which I have referred should give them a stick as well as a carrot in relation to the companies. The noble Baroness is right that there is significant inconvenience. However, I stress the other side of the equation: London needs a first-class worldwide communications system, and the liberalisation of telecommunications provides that. Therefore, one must strike a balance here.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, in answer to a Written Question published yesterday in Hansard, the Minister admitted that the department has no statistics available centrally on which it can make an estimate of the alterations proposed to date. How does the Minister equate that with regard for the whole of the British economy, outside the information technology sector? In the debate on 5th April, his noble friend Lord Sainsbury indicated that this strategy was well worth while because it contributed to the technical updating of the entire communications system. Will the Minister be frank at least and agree that it is high time that the matter was brought under the control of the DETR rather than the Department of Trade and Industry?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am advised on these occasions that the delineation of departmental responsibility is a matter for the Prime Minister.

I recognise that problems are caused by the profusion of cable companies. Nevertheless, my noble friend would be wrong to dismiss the technological advance in communications that this action brings. It was underlined by my noble friend Lord Sainsbury. The Government intend to give powers in this area to highways authorities, including the Greater London Authority and the London boroughs. We need to take a balanced approach. It may have gone too far one way, but I hope that noble Lords will not push the Government too far in the opposite direction.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, the Minister has a reputation, which he has earned, for good sense, fairness and general helpfulness. Can the noble Lord say whether it is his colleagues or his advisers who are restraining him on this occasion from using those admirable qualities?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am always restrained, I hope, by various forces in this House in order to give a balanced view. That is what I was attempting to do.

There are things wrong with the system. We are addressing them. I ask noble Lords and the citizens of London for a little more patience. We shall have in place very soon the powers for local authorities and the Greater London Authority.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the Minister announced the future commencement of Section 74 of the New Roads and Street Works Act. Can the noble Lord tell us when that will occur?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, regulations are required to be drafted; therefore, it will probably be in the autumn.