HL Deb 06 March 2001 vol 623 cc125-7

2.45 p.m.

Lord Brabazon of Taraasked Her Majesty's Government:

When they intend to introduce regulations under Sections 74 and 74A of the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991, as amended by the Transport Act 2000, to enable charging for streetworks on highways.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, we move from holes on the golf course to holes in the road. Draft Section 74 regulations for England on charging for prolonged occupation of the highway were laid on 27th February and are due to come into force on 1st April. If they do not lead to a sufficient decrease in disruption caused by streetworks, we shall activate the Section 74A power for payment of a charge from the outset of works, which is known as lane rental.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. The regulations were originally intended to come in at the end of last year. Can he give me an absolute assurance that the fact that they were laid a few days after I tabled this Question is a coincidence?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I fear that the noble Lord exaggerates his influence over the Government's business managers. We always intended to lay the regulations in time for them to come into effect on 1st April.

Lord Bradshaw

My Lords, is the Minister aware that one of the big problems with digging holes in the road is the undisciplined way in which up to 100 statutory undertakers within a local authority area can move into a road, often with very little notice and often invoking what they call emergency powers? That will not be solved by charging a lane rental. Are there steps in hand beyond plans for charging to institute some control over the digging of holes in the road?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I accept what the noble Lord says. In addition to the powers coming into effect in April, we shall introduce a new code of practice that strongly emphasises the need for co-ordination between the utilities and the local authority to limit the use of emergency powers strictly to emergency situations. There are also other initiatives, such as the central London partnership between the utilities and the local authorities. We hope that that will have demonstrable results for your Lordships from the beginning of May. Other progress is being made.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will be the first to congratulate my noble friend Lord Brabazon on having so successfully terminated the excessive period of gestation that the department has gone through in producing the order. Will he also bear in mind that "unreasonably prolonged occupation of the highway" is one of the most bromidic descriptions of an infernal nuisance that I have heard for a long time? As a word of criticism, am I right in thinking that the lethargic highway authorities are not brought within the scope of the measure? They should be urged to practice what I hope they will preach.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord could find a pithier way of describing the problem, but I am not sure that it would be acceptable to the parliamentary draftsmen. In however bromidic a way, the title describes what we intend to do. Local authorities are the highways authorities, so they have some responsibilities for maintenance, but, as will be made clear in the new code of practice, they also have some responsibility for co-ordinating with the utilities on disruptions to the highway. If there are lethargic local authorities, they had better not be lethargic for much longer.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that roadworks are a contributory cause of road rage? As I understand it, the regulations to introduce charges have not been brought in as yet. As those charges will depend on the length of occupation, is it not important that they are introduced as soon as possible?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, as I tried to explain, they will be introduced from 1st April so far as concerns overstay. Certainly I accept that a degree of irritation is to be found among road users who encounter works, particularly when those road users have encountered similar works only a few days or weeks earlier. Therefore, co-ordination, as well as financial penalty, is an important aspect of this matter.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, does my noble friend see a little irony in this Question? We are talking about Section 74 of the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991. Does he agree that the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, and the previous administration had six years in which to introduce these regulations, yet the noble Lord is saying that six months after the Transport Act received Royal Assent is too long a time to have waited?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I certainly accept some of what my noble friend says. It was necessary to clarify in the Transport Act some of the details of the 1991 Act in order for the regulations to be made fully effective. We acted as soon as possible following the passage of the Transport Act.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, while we are on the subject of the length of gestation of these regulations, can the noble Lord remember telling me not once but twice during the second half of last year that the regulations were due to be published by Christmas? Is not the logic of the situation that the Government could not make up their mind, which I do not believe to be true, that it took longer to consult on the orders, which, again, I do not believe to be true, or that the department's legal section is short-staffed?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, substantial consultation has taken place on this issue with the utility companies and local authorities. It is not a matter of inadequate resources but, first, of the complexity of the orders that are required in order to meet the respective interests of the utilities and the highways authorities. Secondly, in order to get the regulations right, we had to await the passage of the Transport Act.