HL Deb 22 May 2000 vol 613 cc472-5

3.3 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will either take powers to reduce the number of companies now at liberty to dig holes in the road or advise the chairmen and chief executives of those companies how they might limit the inconvenience to the public.

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

My Lords, the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991 imposes a duty on street authorities to co-ordinate works, and the Government welcome the launch of the Central London Partnership earlier this month. They hope that it will be successful and, if successful, that it will be extended more widely. The Government also intend to implement Section 74 of the Act to allow utilities to be charged for occupying the road longer than an agreed period.

The Government are willing to look at new measures to reduce disruption but do not intend to reduce the number of companies with the right to dig new holes in the road as they believe that effective competition is the best way to increase choice, promote enterprise and bring down prices for consumers.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord will accept my assurance that, when I tabled this Question, I had no idea that Thames Water, egged on by one of the noble Lord's right honourable friends, would select today to announce that it is to dig 3,000 new holes in London's roads this year. Will the noble Lord wrack his brains as to whether there is any other capital city in the world where this kind of mess would be tolerated? Will the noble Lord—or perhaps his noble friend on the Front Bench—explain why people who make a filthy nuisance of themselves on the roads do not pay for the privilege, while the rest of us do? I am sorry that the Government Chief Whip is no longer in his place. Perhaps the noble Lord will have a word with him and urge him to give the excellent Bill that I introduced a week or so ago a fair wind. Then these pestilential people will be paying £1,000 per day for a very small section of road.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I am happy to accept that it is entirely a coincidence that the issue of digging holes for water repairs has been raised today. It stems from the suggestion by the water regulator that the major leakages that are taking place should be repaired properly. That is the reason why Thames Water has suggested that it will have to produce more holes. It is perfectly reasonable to suggest that Thames Water should have proper regard to the number of holes it digs in roads but at the same time properly conserve water. Those are two objectives that it should be set, and it should be able to abide by both.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there has been considerable disruption to the streets around Victoria for several weeks, with pneumatic drills, noise and dirt, and traffic lights put out of order at crossings, presenting a danger to pedestrians? What is the purpose of it all? This is not for water—there must be some other reason. Who gave these companies permission, and what is it for?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I cannot comment on individual cases and particular holes. My area of responsibility is the licensing of telecommunications companies, to which the Question relates. I would point out that the major initiative taken by the street authorities in the Central London Partnership is exactly the kind of initiative that we want to see in order to make certain that work of this kind is properly co-ordinated. Most people accept that much of this work has to be done. We all want to see it properly co-ordinated so that when a street is blocked and people try to find another route they do not also find that road blocked. It requires coordination. I welcome the fact that the Central London Partnership is attempting a major initiative to co-ordinate the work.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, if we have lane rental for road repairs, why can we not have it for disrepairs?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, lane rental is for disrepairs/repairs of this kind. That is the point. We shall have to continue to repair roads. The major issue is the attempt to co-ordinate the work so as to minimise inconvenience to road users.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, will the noble Lord agree that his original Answer gave the impression that he felt that the more competition there was in digging holes, the better it would be for London and other major cities? I invite him to withdraw that impression. More seriously, will the Minister assure the House that when he meets the captains of this particular industry he will try to get them interested in this problem, if only for the sake of public relations? Only when there is a direction from the top will there be a country-wide approach to the problem.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, if I in any way gave the impression that telecommunications companies were there to compete in digging holes, I withdraw that immediately. Their primary function is to provide telecommunications services. That is why this matter is the responsibility of the DTI. The DTI is in discussion with telecommunications companies to make certain that we try to achieve best practice in this regard and to raise performance in what is an intolerable situation for many road users.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, does the Minister believe that it is beyond the wit of man to invent a machine that can dig a narrow channel, lay a cable and backfill all in one go, with small road works at junctions? Will the Government consider offering a prize to an entrepreneur who can invent such a machine?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, if that would in any way reduce the number of questions raised on holes, personally I would offer such a prize.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, although much of the existing dislocation has been caused by the activities of water companies, by and large the field goes much wider? In view of the Minister's Answers to previous Questions on this subject, does he agree that the Department of Trade and Industry has issued open licences to many of those who now dig up the roads? Do the Government have any powers either to revoke those licences or enable the people of London to exert their will in this matter?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, as I have said in the past, 86 companies have the right under telecommunications licences to carry out work which is a major cause of holes in roads. This is part of a major programme to install the infrastructure that we need for the 21st century. We do not intend to reduce the number of licences because we believe that this is an essential piece of infrastructure. Within the terms of the Act and European legislation we must adopt a fair policy towards all companies.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, a few weeks ago in a debate initiated by my noble friend, the Minister announced that Section 74 of the New Roads and Street Works Act would be implemented. Can the noble Lord tell the House what progress has been made in that regard? Have the necessary orders been drafted and, if so, when will they be laid before the House?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, the regulations are being drafted. It will take a considerable time as this is a complicated matter. However, we hope to achieve our aim before the end of the year.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, will the Minister contact the chairmen of the companies concerned and tell them what pests they are? They give the appearance of lacking the manners or wit to understand the annoyance they cause. Surely, the Government should give them a friendly prod.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, we are perfectly aware of the situation. The question is how to devise a course of action which will improve the situation rather than simply expressing aggravation about it.