HL Deb 30 March 2001 vol 624 cc543-8

11.32 a.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 26th February be approved [9th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the purpose of these regulations is to allow highway authorities to levy charges on undertakers where the latter fail to complete works to the highway by an agreed deadline. The Government are very much aware of the increasing concern of the public and businesses at the level of disruption caused to road-users by street works carried out by statutory undertakers or their contractors.

I find it almost impossible to believe that the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, is not in his place on this occasion as we owe more than a little to his tireless work on this subject. At the end of 1999 we launched a consultation on possible options for reducing disruption. After considering the responses, we announced last April that we intended to activate the powers in Section 74 of the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991 to charge for works which overrun. In the event, it proved necessary to take some additional powers in the Transport Act 2000 to allow a charging regime to operate effectively. The regulations which are before us today are the result of wide consultation with highway authorities, the utilities and many other interested bodies.

In addition to the regulations, this year should also see the introduction of regulations or codes of practice, in some cases both, on a number of aspects of street works practice, including inspection of works, safety and the effective co-ordination by utilities and highway authorities of different works. We shall also be issuing next week a best practice guide aimed at both utilities and authorities with a view to bringing the worst performing practitioners up to the standard of the best.

Perhaps I may turn now to the regulations themselves. Under the charging scheme undertakers will have to inform relevant highway authorities of forthcoming works, and works in progress, by means of a system of notices. For example, they will need to provide notice of the start date of individual works and to agree with the highway authority a reasonable date for completion of those works. They will also need to confirm that works have been completed to allow the highway authority to determine whether the works have finished within the agreed deadline, or, if they overrun, to calculate the charge to be levied on the undertaker.

Obviously, the disruption caused by different works will vary according to the size of the works and the amount of traffic on particular roads. The regulations take account of this by setting different maximum daily charges for different types of works. The charges which authorities can impose range from £2,000 a day for major work on the busiest roads to £100 a day for minor works of short duration on less busy roads. We recognise that there are some works which need to be carried out urgently or which are emergencies; for example, gas leaks where lives could be put at risk. The regulations take account of that by setting lower charges than for ordinary works.

It is for individual local authorities to decide whether they want to adopt these new powers. As disruption is clearly a greater problem in some parts of the country than others, it makes sense to allow decisions to be taken locally. More than 75 authorities have already informed us that they intend to operate charging schemes. The powers have been designed specifically to allow authorities to tailor the details of the charging scheme to the situation in their area. For example, they can choose to reduce or waive charges in particular cases if they consider that there are extenuating circumstances, or they can concentrate on particular roads, or even particular undertakers, if they deem it appropriate.

These regulations are not an end in themselves. We have recently appointed Halcrow as consultants to monitor closely how well the new powers work. If it turns out that they do not lead to a sufficient improvement in the current situation and a reduction in the level of street works disruption, the Government will not hesitate to activate the powers in the Transport Act 2000 to allow highway authorities to charge undertakers from the start of works a so-called lane rental. I have little doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Peyton of Yeovil, will also be monitoring the efficacy of the new measures.

To sum up, the regulations provide highway authorities with important new powers to reduce disruption, and I commend them to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 26th February be approved [9th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton.)

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her comments about my noble friend Lord Peyton. We all acknowledge that he has been very persistent in this matter. I, too, am sorry that my noble friend is unable to be here today to hear the plaudits from both sides.

I should like to raise only two issues. First, these regulations affect only about 50 per cent of the work done to the roads. The utilities do not cover the totality of the people who dig up the roads. Does the noble Baroness believe that these measures are sufficient to cover all aspects and it will be unnecessary to introduce further ones in future to cover the 50 per cent who do not come within these regulations?

Secondly, the noble Baroness dealt with the question of what happens if disruption is not decreased. What about the benchmarking that should have been undertaken to judge whether or not disruption is taking place? The regulations do not appear to contain any benchmark as of now by which local authorities are to judge the situation. How will the monitoring by Halcrow take place? Who is to lay down the benchmarks for monitoring, and when will further regulations, if they are necessary, be introduced?

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, these regulations were discussed at length in another place. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, I shall not repeat that long discussion. However, I have one or two queries.

I shall start where the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, ended, with the question of benchmarking. The Minister mentioned that 75 local authorities had already indicated that they were keen to implement these new regulations. Is there a basis on which to measure a possible reduction in disturbance and nuisance? Some boroughs, particularly London boroughs, may have good records of who has dug up the road and for how long they have been on the road. I do not know, and it would be interesting to learn, whether that is the case. Otherwise it is difficult to know how one is to measure improvement.

Supposing one can measure whether or not these regulations are effective, what if they are ineffective for perfectly legal reasons; for example, the number of necessary interventions in the road surface is increasing or there is an enormous amount of building and construction going on in every urban centre? How will that impact upon the effectiveness of these new regulations?

Finally, there is the question of lane rental, which would have the effect of increasing the costs to the statutory undertakers of any work. Bearing in mind that some of that work is to supply necessary services, does that mean that the cost to the consumer will rise? If that appears to be a danger, how will the Government tackle that issue?

Lord Lipsey

My Lords, as one of the army of the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, in one or two of his debates on this subject, I, too, welcome the thrust of these regulations. I particularly welcome what the Minister said about in future charging not just overstayers but for lane closures.

I have one question about the local authority's autonomy over its charges. When we are considering the building of new roads, assessments are made of the time saved by building that new road and of the disruption caused by it. Values are put on those matters. A proper economic assessment is done before deciding whether to go ahead with it. From the point of view of an economist, the right way to charge for overstaying would be to assess the time wasted by motorists while they are sitting in traffic jams because of these road works and make the charge equate to or slightly exceed the cost of the time that they are losing.

To do a proper assessment for minor road works might be more trouble and expense than it is worth. Perhaps the Minister, as she assesses the progress of this scheme, will bear in mind the need and desirability for a more sophisticated system of charging which relates not just to local authorities having a look to see what jams there are but the actual time that is wasted as a result of these dratted works.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, I declare a personal interest in the subject matter of the debate in that, day after day, I have to proceed by one form of transport or another along Kensington Road to its junction with Kensington Church Street. I query what powers of real enforcement there are within the regulations we are discussing. For the past two months, opposite the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington Road, about a quarter of a mile before the junction of Kensington Church Street, the road has been up—if that is a term of which the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, would approve. Certainly, there are road works there which have effectively narrowed the already existing bottleneck, so that, after a certain time of night, it is almost impossible to pass that way.

I have watched very carefully indeed the progress of these works. In most instances when I have passed the works there has been no one working there. That situation has gone on for approximately two months. To people's increasing irritation, there has been a considerable delay to traffic all the way along the road. Sometimes one passes the works and finds that one person is in charge of an operation on both sides of the road, with a great deal of spoil and various abstractions. Considerable amounts of timber are left lying idle day by day without any apparent endeavour to relieve the situation which I have described.

I have no wish to niggle over what is possibly to others a small point, but to thousands of Londoners who have to go that way it represents a considerable inconvenience for which so far there is no apparent relief. I repeat that I have no wish to niggle about this purely because I am personally involved, but I am bound to say that every time I pass, whether day or night, I wonder how often and how effective the powers of enforcement are on the various regulations and indeed Acts that are passed in this place on the assumption that they will become effective law and be effectively enforced.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I begin by saying to my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington that he has outlined the reason why noble Lords should support this measure. The regulation has to be seen in the context of the other measures that are already being introduced—the best practice, to which I referred, the code of practice, the co-ordination and the launching of, in Middlesbrough and perhaps elsewhere, lane rental pilot schemes. That deals with the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas.

Several noble Lords have indicated that they will monitor carefully the efficacy of these measures. If we think that the disruption is not being sufficiently cut, there are possible new measures; for example, there could be a national launch of lane rental and, if necessary, greater powers could be given to highway authorities to control works.

My noble friend Lord Bruce referred to Kensington Church Street. These regulations should encourage works to be done more quickly. Those carrying out the works will incur significant fines if they are not.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, raised the question of whether the cost to consumers could rise. That will depend on the powers of the regulator or the particular utility. It is possible that some cost could be passed on to consumers. We do not envisage that being a major problem. The local highway authorities will be co-operating with Halcrow. It will make a study of the data held by those authorities in drawing up arrangements for monitoring and it will make recommendations to us. We shall try to take into account all the factors in deciding whether there is a need for further measures to be taken.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, raised the issue of the level of charges and the sophistication of the scheme. We believe that operating on a sliding scale will allow highway authorities to target the highest fines on those major roads where disruption occurs and where that disruption is most likely to be severe. We believe that it is important to leave to individual local authorities the decision whether to reduce or waive charges. For example, there might be conditions of particularly adverse weather that would allow authorities to make judgments in a locality.

The contributions made by noble Lords demonstrate that Halcrow, the department, the Government and local authorities will have to be stringent and sensitive in monitoring what happens. It is clear that, in the absence of the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, many other noble Lords step in to fill his place.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, somewhere along the line my questions—perhaps I did not ask them correctly—have not been answered. First, I pointed out that the utilities cover only 50 per cent of the road work. I asked whether the noble Baroness was satisfied that the other 50 per cent were already covered by regulations or whether, if necessary in the future, regulations would be introduced to deal with the other 50 per cent provided by private companies, builders and so on. My second point related to the fact that so far there is no benchmarking on which Halcrow can base its estimates for the future of what disruption is being caused and whether it is being lessened. I asked whether that benchmarking should not have been undertaken before the regulations were laid. As it has not been, will that benchmarking be undertaken urgently?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I believe I am correct in saying that the process of developing benchmarking and looking at how to access and evaluate levels of disruption needs to be carried out in the context of the best practice that will start that process but also in co-operation with local authorities because of the varying issues. It will also have to be sensitive. We believe that this measure, alongside the other measures, will be very effective. I note the concerns and potential doubts raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. As I said earlier, greater powers could be given to highways authorities if, in the light of experience and following the detailed analysis, we felt that it was necessary to do so.

On Question, Motion agreed to.