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Cable Companies (Street Works)

Volume 264: debated on Wednesday 18 October 1995

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Streeter.]

10.16 pm

I look forward to hearing my hon. Friend the Minister extol the virtues of Britain being wired into the information super-highway, but my principal purpose is to draw attention to some of the many problems that my constituents have suffered as their streets have been torn up and their pavements littered with junction boxes.

Let me begin by setting the record straight in regard to the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991, which gave cable companies powers to dig up our streets. On 11 March last year, the Bolton Evening News carried a rather unfortunate cartoon showing my head in a noose, with the caption "Hang him high", after a Labour councillor had accused me of being the number one guilty man for supporting the Bill's passage in May 1991. On examining the record, I see that I was in very good company: so few problems were anticipated that the Bill was given an unopposed Second and Third Reading.

At that time I received no representations from Bolton council or, indeed, from anyone else. Perhaps Councillor Laurie Williamson will now be good enough to withdraw his entirely unwarranted accusation—the claim that I am the "number one guilty man" responsible for the chaos that Bolton has suffered in the past as a result of being a pioneer town in regard to cabling. The scale of that chaos was clearly not anticipated at the time by Bolton council or anyone else.

I think that my hon. Friend is already aware of some of my constituents' concerns, but I have files of correspondence from more than 40 of them who have been seriously inconvenienced by many problems—for instance, damage to tree roots. I have an advance copy of the November issue of Gardening Which?, which contains a major article on the way in which trenching affects tree roots. The magazine says in conclusion that it would like to offer to
"chair a forum of all concerned in order to avert what could too easily become an environmental disaster, as another 30,000 miles of trenches are left to be dug in this country".
We have had problems with losing services of various kinds. Water pipes have been cut in neighbouring constituencies, and telephone wires have also been cut. We have had warfare with British Telecom, on occasion, when telephone wires have been cut and Nynex's contractors refused to accept responsibility for them. Power supplies have been cut on numerous occasions—including that of my own secretary, a great mistake on the part of Nynex. Holes in the roads have been left unmarked; pavements have been left broken or badly reinstated. I have received a long letter from Alderman Ken McIvor, a former mayor, on this very point. Badly sited junction boxes are another of our continuing problems which get no better with time.

I want to dwell on two particular cases this evening. One concerns the house at 26 Thorns close in Astley Bridge, where my constituents Mr. and Mrs. Mulrooney found that the cable company, Nynex, refused to reposition a large junction box that had been plonked right in front of their sitting room window. I would be glad to show the Minister photographs of it. The box has been put there in direct contravention of Nynex's own cabinet siting ground rules, a copy of which I have with me. Dated 13 January 1994, they run to 25 separate points. Rule 19 says:
"place the junction box in the most unobtrusive position possible, i.e., not in full view from the front window".
The junction box at Thorns close directly contravenes that rule.

Surprisingly, the battle to have the box removed has gone on for more than a year. In that time the Mulrooneys have been told, variously, that it is impossible to replace it, or that if it were replaced it would cost the company £6,000, and so on. Nynex wrote to the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Esher (Mr. Taylor), who wrote on to me in July as follows:
"I understand Nynex are unable to relocate the cabinet".
It is remarkable, however, what can happen once a Member of Parliament secures an Adjournment debate. I am delighted to hear from the Mulrooneys that, in the past couple of days, Nynex and its contractors have indeed found it possible to relocate the junction box away from the Mulrooney's sitting room window. They have rung me to express their great delight. It is odd that one has to secure a debate in Parliament to demonstrate the problems that constituents can have before a proper remedy is found.

I arranged a site meeting to discuss the matter on 31 March, but not until now has anything been done about it. I am delighted, however, that progress has finally been made in this case.

The other case that I want to mention concerns my constituent Mr. Simon Pearce, of Lower House walk, Bromley Cross, and his mother Mrs. Joan Pearce who lives close by. Mr. Pearce had complained about the poor reinstatement of the pavements dug up near his house in the spring of last year and about the great danger that they presented to a number of elderly residents living nearby. He repeatedly called for inspections by Bolton council and Nynex. He arranged for four site visits by inspectors, and he was promised that all the necessary remedial work would be carried out by December 1994, long after the six-month statutory limit laid down by regulation.

Despite these four site inspections it was obvious that no proper records were kept or disciplines applied either by Bolton council or Nynex and its contractors. Mr. Pearce had to arrange for a further site inspection, on 7 February this year, with a senior Nynex supervisor, but Nynex continued to fail to carry out its statutory duties properly to reinstate the pavements. There is a sad and ironic twist to the tale, because sadly, on 8 April this year, Mr. Pearce's elderly mother tripped badly and suffered severely in a fall on one of these badly reinstated paving stones on Rose Hill drive. It was Mr. Pearce who found his mother seriously shocked, bleeding and needing immediate hospital treatment.

But even after that saga, Nynex has still failed to reinstate the pavements. Even today, my constituent informs me that the necessary work has still not been done. To remedy matters, I recommend to my hon. Friend that whatever his existing codes of practice may be they should be scrapped and totally rewritten. In May of last year, the then Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) wrote to me, saying:
"I am willing to strengthen the codes of practice and regulations."
I make the following eight points for incorporation in a much-toughened and strengthened code of practice. I am grateful to Mr. Pearce for putting these points to me.

First, the cable company should publicise how the public can complain about street works by letter and freephone telephone number. Full publicity should be given in the press, regional television advertisements, on all the company's vehicles and at the site of street works.

Secondly, the company should satisfy the Department of Trade and Industry and the relevant local authority that it has such quality assurance standards and procedures in place internally, as well as keeping a log of written and telephone complaints received. Logs should be kept at local level and should record the remedial action taken, and the overall performance of areas properly monitored.

Thirdly, quality assurance procedures should require that inspectors make a written record of the location and nature of pavement reinstatement problems. The Minister will recall that an aggravating feature of Mrs. Pearce's injury was that her son did point out the problems to Nynex inspectors on numerous separate site inspections and none of the inspectors made a written record of the many problems that were shown to them. A closely related issue is whether Nynex has employed inspectors of a sufficient calibre to supervise contractors properly.

Fourthly, the code of practice should also require cable companies to ensure quality standards in their contractors. In the case of Rose Hill drive, skilled paving masons were required, not unskilled labourers. But skilled masons were not used until Mr. Pearce intervened. Quality standards should also mean that contractors do not mix mortar on the pavements and leave it to set hard as a permanent memorial to sloppy workmanship.

Fifthly, there should be more consistency in the use of inspectors. Mr. Pearce pointed out that he felt that Nynex had transferred or rotated its inspectors in my constituency more frequently than Ministers in the Department of Trade and Industry.

Sixthly, reinstatement standards should be the same as those in the United States. My constituent, Mr. Pearce, has a neighbour who is very experienced in the construction industry and a frequent visitor to the United States. I learn that the standards for the reinstatement of pavements and roads are much higher there. Will the Minister consider whether we are perhaps a soft touch in Britain compared with the United States?

Seventhly, when a legal claim is made against Nynex for injury in connection with street works, I gather that the company feels that its responsibility is to refer the matter to the contractor, but Nynex is the designated utility under the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991 and so, I believe, it has a primary responsibility. The proposed code of practice should require Nynex to accept full responsibility and to compensate without expensive legal action. There may be thousands of potential claimants in the country who do not proceed against cable companies because of the expense involved.

The eighth point in my proposed code of practice is that local authorities should have a duty to maintain a log of all complaints received about cable communications street works, and pursue each complaint vigorously rather than allow the companies to remedy problems in their own good time. My code of practice would set out financial penalties for poor reinstatement. Heavy fines should follow where companies do not carry out reinstatements properly, despite constantly being asked to do so.

My hon. Friend the Minister will be aware that at present, there seems to be too much discretion. I understand that Nynex was largely untroubled by local authority-imposed fines in the case of the very bad performance that we experienced in Bolton, yet Nynex has revealed to my constituents that Manchester city council is much more vigorous in imposing fines. My code of practice would reduce the likelihood of some local authorities, such as Bolton, becoming a soft touch.

Time does not allow me to expand on related points, such as full compensation for traders who suffer from street works by utility operators in general, discussion about the virtues of, for example, trenchless digging or digital broadcasting, which may make cables obsolete altogether. I am, however, grateful for this opportunity to raise the subject on the Adjournment and I look forward to my hon. Friend's assurances that other constituencies will be protected from the problems we have experienced in Bolton as one of the pioneers.

10.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry
(Mr. Richard Page)

I commend and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) on swinging into action so promptly after the resumption of Parliament and on raising a subject that has touched the postbag of many, if not quite all, hon. Members. His initiation of this debate will, I hope, be a clear message to the various Bolton councillors—who have been rather discourteous to him—that he has his constituents' interests at heart.

My hon. Friend will, I trust, appreciate that I shall leave alone the fact that the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), the Leader of the Opposition, in his epic announcement of the BT deal at the Labour party conference, apparently overlooked all the work of the cable companies and the sheer size and scale of their operations—some £10 billion-worth. The point the companies make—that they are already linking up schools throughout the country—seems to have eluded the Labour party. Tempting as it is to go down those highways and byways, I know that my hon. Friend would rather that I addressed the point in front of us tonight. Constituents' complaints are, obviously, distressing and have to be investigated by any responsible Member of Parliament in the way that my hon. Friend did tonight. I pay tribute to his direction and enthusiasm.

On a more general point, I naturally appreciate the concerns that some residents may feel in areas where cable networks are being installed. The work, as we all know, can be noisy, dirty and seemingly interminable for those who are having their daily lives disrupted.

This is the problem of success. Cable is a huge venture for the 1990s. It brings benefits to all with, as I have said, £10 billion-worth of investment by the end of the decade and 26,000 jobs. The disruption the cable operators' street works causes is short-term. The benefits are real, of real benefit to residents themselves and long-term. In future, it will become a distinct selling factor in disposing of property to make the point that it is cabled. As I have said, the short-term disruption is a small price to pay for the substantial benefits which flow in the long term to residents themselves from the modern, high-capacity infrastructure being installed.

Looking in the long term, the key point is that, in addition to multi-channel television, cable networks are delivering competitive, modern telephone services. The growth in demand for cable telephony has been one of the most striking factors, with the number of cable telephone lines installed rising from some 2,000 lines at the beginning of 1991 to just over 1 million lines currently. Each month, cable operators are signing up some 50,000 new telephone customers who are attracted by low-cost calls.

Even those who choose not to take those services from cable operators will benefit indirectly from the competitive pressure that they represent in the local telephony market. Competition from cable operators is acting as a spur to BT to reduce prices and to improve services further.

In future, the companies will have the potential to deliver a huge range of additional innovative services such as remote education, home banking and home shopping. I know that my hon. Friend, with all his knowledge and experience of the subject, appreciates that much more than most.

However, that is in the future, and I shall now talk about the specific problems that my hon. Friend has put before the House. In installing cable, some disruption is inevitable, as we all know. Streets must be dug up, but it is vital for such disruption to be kept to a minimum. It is the scale of cable operators' street works that distinguishes them from those of other statutory undertakers: quite simply, they must build an entirely new network across almost all of urban Britain—a huge task, which dwarfs the maintenance of existing utility systems.

That is why, in addition to the statutory requirements of street works legislation, cable operators' licences include conditions designed to ensure that they carry out all aspects of their street works in a responsible manner. What my hon. Friend has said rings alarms bells and it raises concerns in my mind that in certain instances that may not have happened.

There is a common misconception—I certainly come across it in my postbag—that cable operators have carte blanche to do as they wish when installing their systems, and are not subject to the same controls as other statutory undertakers. That is not the case. All street works, whether carried out by water undertakers or cable operators, are governed by the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991.

The Act imposes quite demanding conditions on street works and gives substantial powers to local highway authorities. Highway authorities may bring prosecutions for offences, including failure to reinstate, failure to comply with requirements as to reinstatement materials and workmanship standards, failure to sign, guard and light works as required and failure to co-operate with the highway authority.

As for the standard of reinstatement, the New Roads and Street Works Act requires that all reinstatements, temporary and permanent, conform to nationally specified standards. It gives the highway authority power to inspect undertakers' reinstatements, and to require defects to be remedied by the undertaker within a stipulated time and at the undertaker's expense. Trenches have a minimum two-year guarantee from the date of final reinstatement.

However, the Act allows undertakers to reinstate only the width of the trench excavated. It aims to strike a balance between the legitimate interests of those undertaking street works, of residents and of other users of the street. As part of that balance, it was not considered reasonable to make the undertaker reinstate the full width of a footway where he had excavated only part of it. Instead, the code of practice requires footway reinstatements to match existing surfaces as far as practicable. Those powers are considerable, and as my hon. Friend has raised concerns, his local council should find out whether it has used fully and effectively the powers at its disposal.

My hon. Friend also raised the subject of the siting of street cabinets, which is an especially contentious issue. He is not alone in having had the subject brought before him. I have had the same experience, but in my constituency, although I have had four complaints, the cable operator there—Jones Cable, now a part of Bell Cable Media Ltd.—has dealt with all four of them efficiently and expeditiously, so I have not seen the suffering that my hon. Friend has seen.

There was an example in my constituency of street cabinets being incorrectly positioned, and I can well appreciate the excitement that that causes in constituents' minds. Although the number of complaints about cabinets is probably very small in proportion to the total number installed, I accept that a cabinet stuck outside someone's front window will cause some excitement. I hope that my hon. Friend's constituents, especially the Mulrooneys, will congratulate him and thank him for acting so expeditiously on their behalf.

Cable operators are required to place most of their apparatus—such as cables, and so on—underground. However, it is difficult to place cabinets in a similar position, because present technology does not yet allow them to be placed under the footpath. There is insufficient space in most urban footpaths to accommodate cable operators' equipment. Licence conditions are therefore framed to ensure that cabinets are sited as sensitively as possible.

Complaints monitoring is one aspect of the cable operators' activities that the DTI monitors particularly closely. The action we take is twofold. The individual complaints which come to our attention through correspondence with Ministers, officials or through local authorities are all invariably followed up in detail with the individual company concerned. Companies are encouraged to provide proper senior management guidance and supervision for staff employed to manage the street works and to respond to complaints. My hon. Friend commented on the rotation of the management looking at the issues, and that should be examined in due course.

At the same time, we monitor the overall trend of street works performance by looking in broad, often statistical, terms at the complaints reaching us and the Cable Communications Association, and by looking at local media coverage of the street works issues.

The statistical tools we use are intended to quickly identify worsening trends in street works performance which we raise very quickly with the companies concerned at senior level. Offending companies are monitored very closely, often being required frequently to report on, and account for, their performance at top management level.

I am pleased to say that the cable industry has been increasingly successful in managing its construction programme. The aggregate indicators we use suggest that the overall level of complaints, disruption and unacceptable impact caused by cable construction—taken across the UK as a whole—is falling. This is particularly pleasing, given that more construction is going on in 1995 than in any previous year. In the first six months of 1995, cable networks passed 795,000 homes as against 550,000 homes in the same period of 1994.

My hon. Friend raised the performance of Nynex in Bolton, which appears to be disappointing and at odds with some of the statistics we have received. The overall improvement in Nynex's performance has been particularly pleasing. We have been monitoring the firm particularly closely in view of concerns early in 1994 about the handling of its construction programme. In the Bolton franchise, the measures that Nynex has put in have brought about a reduction in the complaints per kilometre ratio from a peak of 3.25 complaints per kilometre built in the March to June period to 0.72 complaints per kilometre in 1995.

My hon. Friend has painted a serious picture, particularly of the Pearce family, whose case will be examined. He has made a number of specific recommendations to which I would prefer to respond once I have had an opportunity to draw them to the attention of Nynex, the Department of Transport and the Cable Communications Association.

When the DTI has had occasion to tackle Nynex over street works performance in the past, the company has made clear its commitment to implementing further changes as necessary to ensure closer management of its contractors and an overall high standard of its street works operations.

The Department of Transport, which has had a policy of responsibility for the New Roads and Street Works Act, is considering responses to its consultation earlier this year on possible changes to the codes and regulations under the Act. I understand from the Cable Communications Association that a cable industry construction code of practice is already in preparation. Some of my hon. Friend's recommendations may well be under consideration. He is going with the flow in this matter.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. Either a ministerial colleague or I will be back in contact with him when we have the answers to the points raised.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes to Eleven o'clock.