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Street Works (Utilities)

Volume 481: debated on Monday 27 October 2008

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

I am delighted to have secured tonight’s Adjournment debate, in which I will highlight the negative effect of repeated digging by utility companies on the structure of our roads and highways. It has become a particular problem in my constituency, becoming increasingly costly to both the local authorities covering the Denton and Reddish area—Tameside and Stockport metropolitan borough councils.

Indeed, so bad is the situation that Tameside council has launched a campaign, “restore the roads”, which the borough’s three MPs are supporting to highlight the problem. Tameside council believes that our roads should be dug up only once in any year by the utility companies—very different from the 8,000 separate diggings that the borough had to suffer last year alone from a potential 106 different firms, all in a borough with only 442 miles of road! This continued work can lead to an unsightly patchwork effect of repair, which affects my constituents’ everyday movements and quality of life. Basically, the law needs to be changed to allow for the full cost of restoration of the whole length of road by the body that carries out any digging, and for full ownership restoration of the roads with absolute permission being required from the council to carry out any digging.

Over recent years, the growth in the economy, the introduction of competition into utility services and increasing customer demand for essential services have brought with them increasing numbers of excavations in the streets in order to supply these services. That increase brings with it the increased potential for conflict between the utility contractors, which have the statutory rights to use the streets for provision of essential services, the highway authorities, and others who maintain them, and those who use the streets for transport purposes.

To address those issues, the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991—or NRASWA, as the engineers like to call it—provided a legislative framework for street and highway works, and it is supported by regulations and codes of practice. A number of measures have already been introduced to encourage improvements in the planning and execution of street works, and to help to minimise disruption, notably a scheme under section 74 of the Act to charge undertakers who fail to complete works within the time scales agreed between them and the highway authority. Additionally, the Act lays down standards for backfilling and reinstatements, as well as guarantee periods for maintenance.

Part 4 of the Traffic Management Act 2004 was introduced in April 2008 and has supplemented NRASWA, giving highway authorities more power to control and direct promoters of works effectively, with the aim of minimising disruption. Under the 2004 Act, there is provision to operate a permit scheme. Permits apply equally to activities carried out by highway authorities and utility companies, although highway authorities will not pay a fee. A permit will be required for every opening in the highway, and that will replace the system of noticing. Discussions are taking place on the way forward for operating a common permit scheme across the county of Greater Manchester.

The Act also has provisions for issuing fixed penalty notices for failure to provide notices or for giving inadequate or incorrect information on notices. Utility organisations are required by legislation to notify the authority of programmed works with realistic start and end dates, determined by type of work to be undertaken. Records of utility openings are kept, which monitor the time works are ongoing. Again, regular and systematic checking takes place to ensure that the works do not overrun the specific notice times permitted.

The implementation of section 74 of NRASWA enables works to be better planned and provides better information for street authorities to plan their inspections and co-ordinate works. Those notices contain the actual start date, the agreed duration and the completion date of the works. The council can charge utilities that overrun the agreed completion date, in accordance with laid out rules. However, with more and more excavations taking place, roads and footways are still becoming a patchwork of unsightly scars on the highway, leading to increased complaints and poor public perception of local authority management of its assets.

One such example is Oldham road, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (David Heyes), which is a significant route.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning Oldham road in my constituency, as it is possibly the worst example in relation to the general point he is making. He would agree that Tameside is an excellent local authority—probably the best—but it is constantly frustrated in its endeavours to maintain the roads and footways to a high standard. Oldham road is a good example of that. In preparation for it becoming a quality bus corridor, the road surface was reconstructed. Within weeks, the utilities arrived and the pneumatic drills got to work. In next to no time, that splendid new road was pockmarked and potholed because of inadequate reinstatement.

Does my hon. Friend agree that that causes long-term and expensive damage, and that it is time that local authorities such as ours were given powers to re-charge utilities with the true cost of putting right this long-term damage to the integrity of our roads?

I agree absolutely. My hon. Friend makes an excellent case about Oldham road in his constituency. Similarly, just 12 months ago, extensive repaving—much of it modular block paving and carriageway resurfacing—took place in Denton town centre in my constituency. A year on, it is set to be ripped up by utility companies seeking to do extensive and major maintenance work, which they say was not programmed when the council contacted them 12 months ago.

Looking at some of the poor reinstatements across the borough, it is clear that long-term damage is caused by the street works, as my hon. Friend rightly says. The number of reinstatements in the highway is increasingly affecting both the appearance and quality of road and footpath surfaces in Tameside. Moreover, the premature maintenance required as a result of the structural and environmental damage caused by the deterioration of reinstatements is placing additional pressure on already stretched highway maintenance budgets. There is increasing public dissatisfaction with what must be described as a deteriorating situation.

I am glad that my hon. Friend has secured a debate that is timely for, in particular, constituents of mine who have battled home through the roadworks of Brighton and Hove. I have been courteously kept informed by the utility companies, and have become involved in discussions with Tory-led Brighton and Hove city council. However, over the past year—while the current council has been in office—the roadworks have multiplied, and there are few issues about which I have received more complaints.

The roadworks increase pollution and decrease the quality of life, and I am concerned about their effect on the economy of Brighton and Hove. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need joined-up thinking from the councils before they give permission for otherwise worthy roadworks?

I entirely agree. In the case of Oldham road and Denton town centre, the council approached the utility companies, which said that they had no such works planned for the area. They recently ripped them up. However, I take my hon. Friend’s point about Brighton and Hove council, and I am sure that that is common practice throughout the country.

Proper reinstatement will restore the actual area that has been excavated, but I think it is commonly accepted that there is consequential structural damage to adjacent areas. There is also some evidence to suggest that reinstated areas display more surface defects, which in turn will allow further deterioration of the structure of the highway itself. Current legislation does not deal with the damage caused to the integrity of the highway. As things stand, the utility companies continually get away with it. They have to pay only for the part of the road that they dig up, and the council must pay for the rest to rectify the damage. That is very unfair to council tax payers and the community at large. Not only are many of the utility diggers ripping off the community with the excessive charges; they are ripping up our roads, and the community must pay again for a full restoration.

Recent research undertaken by Tameside council has shown that between 20 and 30 per cent. of inspected jobs are found to be defective in regard to health and safety, guarding issues, reinstatements causing danger, and non-adherence to specifications determined by road category. All those defects are monitored by the council’s streetworks inspectors, and defects are corrected. Recent core sampling—checks on specifications after expiry of guarantee periods—has also indicated that 30 per cent. of jobs failed inspection, and would require utility organisations to return and rectify the problems. Those works will cause additional disruption to road users. Furthermore, the opening of trenches will have a significant negative public impact on Tameside as an “attractive borough”, and will cause disruption and congestion to all users of the network.

The Minister will be interested to know that Tameside council has also calculated how much the work is costing it. Following detailed examination of Tameside's road network and condition, figures have been determined, subject to final verification. It has been calculated that the current gross replacement cost for carriageways and footways is £620 million. Tameside has established through its transport asset management plan that the improvement investment—that is, backlog maintenance—required is in the region of £27 million for carriageways and £10 million for footways, a total of £37 million.

It could be argued that if it is accepted that utility organisations reduce the life of the road by 30 per cent. as a direct result of utility openings, the local tax payer is contributing some £11 million as a direct result of the long-term damage caused to the local highway network by utility openings. That is £11 million diverted from schools, libraries and services for pensioners in my constituency.

It is high time that the utilities footed their fair share of the bill. I do not believe that they pay the real costs of the damage that they cause; in my view, they pay only part of it. However, there are a number of remedies that we could suggest to the Minister.

Utility openings create disruption and are difficult to manage and control, despite legislation and authority efforts to co-ordinate works. They contribute significantly to the expected—reduced—life of the highway and ultimately affect life-cycle plans for planned repairs, creating disproportionate demand on reactive spend levels, which is ultimately borne by the local taxpayer. It is impossible for local authorities to inspect all the openings at each stage and, as I have said, about 30 per cent. of inspections reveal defects and/or issues to be resolved. Recharges, made in line with legislation, allow costs to be recovered, but do not cover disruption or address long-term damage issues, so we need a change in the law.

There are a number of possible remedies, such as full width reinstatements under law. The Secretary of State has powers under section 78 of NRASWA to enable there to be a financial contribution by the utility organisations for the effects of long-term damage. However, this section of the Act has never been enacted. To help alleviate these issues, Tameside council has already tried to persuade companies to undertake full width construction at some locations. Although it has been successful in part, it has no powers to enforce this, and can only use a persuasive approach to achieve the objective. This should now be a legal requirement that makes the utility companies fully reinstate the roads. I believe it is now time for that part of NRASWA to be enacted, making the utility companies pay the full price for their works. I urge the Minister to consider enabling this part of the legislation.

This situation needs to be addressed. It cannot be fair for local people to be so regularly inconvenienced by road works, and for Stockport, Tameside and many other local authorities to have to pay for the structural damage caused by the utility companies. The utility companies made millions of pounds last year and can well afford to put right all the damage they have caused to local roads and highways. The estimated £11 million price tag should not be borne by the local council tax payers as it takes money away from valuable services. We urgently need a change in the law to make utility companies legally responsible for the very real damage they cause to our roads.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) on securing this debate and on providing us with an opportunity to discuss works by utility companies in the highway. I know that he has written to my predecessors on this matter and I admire his tenacity in ensuring that it remains under close scrutiny.

Roads are the vital arteries of modern life. Not only do they allow roads users to travel to their destinations or deliver goods or services, they allow utility companies to provide the energy, water and telecommunications that we have come to expect as part of modern life. We expect them to be available all day, every day. This level of availability—99.9 per cent. of the time—is not easy to achieve. It requires utility companies to maintain, replace or upgrade their infrastructure to ensure this reliability and continuity of supply, as well as to repair and restore supply when it fails. This is not easy.

One penalty of being the first industrialised nation is that our infrastructure is older than that of most other countries. In London, up to 50 per cent. of the water mains are more than 100 years old and, astonishingly, 30 per cent. are more than 150 years old. London is not unique; many other parts of the country, such as Greater Manchester, have water and sewer mains that are more than 100 years old. This is not only the case for water. Gas mains are frequently more than 100 years old, and the majority are more than 50 years old. The majority of electricity mains cables are more than 50 years old, as are some telephone cables.

Given the age of much of this apparatus, it needs to be replaced, or, given growing demand, upgraded. This is not always easy on our busy modern roads. The New Roads and Street Works Act 1991—or NRASWA, as my hon. Friend catchily calls it—requires local authorities to co-ordinate all works on the highway to minimise the inconvenience to road users, promote safety and protect the street. Statutory undertakers such as utility companies have to co-operate with local authorities and each other. The 1991 Act also requires utilities to notify works, carry them out safely and reinstate them properly so that the highway can be returned to use.

In April this year, we brought in stronger powers for local authorities to co-ordinate works. They include longer periods of notice for major works to allow better co-ordination, clearer powers on directing when works can or cannot take place and longer restrictions on works by utility companies following roadworks—up to five years following major reconstructions and up to three years following resurfacing. All other substantial roadworks may be followed by a 12-month restriction. The powers also include the fact that a highway authority may now impose a restriction following major works by a utility company, restricting further work on the street by any utility company for up to 12 months. Fixed penalties for certain offences, mainly the failure to provide timely and accurate notices, have been available to authorities since May as an alternative to prosecution.

The Traffic Management Act 2004 also provided new powers for authorities to operate a permit scheme that allows them to control works in the highway proactively, subject to the approval of the Secretary of State. Permit schemes apply to the highway authority’s own works as well as to those by utility companies. There have already been consultations on two such schemes, the London common permit scheme and the Kent permit scheme. The Department received applications for the London common scheme from 14 London boroughs and Transport for London in July. No decisions have been made on the current applications.

In 2001, the Department for Transport introduced powers for highway authorities to charge utility companies—they are usually known as section 74 charges—when their works take longer than agreed. That has resulted in better estimates from utility companies of the duration of works, which in turn increases authorities’ ability to co-ordinate works and helps them to comply with their network management duty. The co-ordination code of practice, published by the DFT as statutory guidance in July 2007, stressed the importance of co-ordination for longer-term planned works anything up to five years away, but more usually two years away. That allows authorities and utility companies to adjust the timing of works so that utility works take place before a road is resurfaced by an authority, or so that road closures can be shared.

The 2004 Act placed a network management duty on local authorities, requiring them to do all that is reasonably practicable to manage the network effectively and keep traffic moving. That statutory duty reflects the importance placed on making best use of existing road space for the benefit of all road users. That strengthens the need for co-ordination of works, so that the same street does not have a series of works by different utility companies or the local authority over an extended period. Authorities and utility companies are encouraged to co-ordinate works where possible, so that they can share traffic management such as temporary traffic lights or one-way operations, even if the works are not in the same trench.

However, emergency repairs will always be needed for burst water or gas mains or to ensure that supply is restored to households and/or businesses. In Staffordshire, the highway authority has worked with utility companies and its own highways management team to co-ordinate works that, if carried out separately, would take many weeks. It is succeeding in reducing the time for which the highway is occupied. One example, on the A449, involved a gas main replacement and major resurfacing. If carried out as separate works they would have lasted 25 weeks. Instead, all work was completed in 12 weeks, with traffic management, temporary signals and one-way closure organised to maximise traffic flow.

Similarly, in London, Bishopsgate, a vital artery in the City, was closed for a weekend in March to allow a bridge for the East London line to be lowered into place. Transport for London used the opportunity to allow 10 different works promoters to carry out works at 25 separate sites in Bishopsgate. That removed any impact on weekday traffic that several separate works would have had.

Utility companies are required to make good or reinstate the highway after they have carried out works. When possible, they are encouraged to do that immediately after the works, which is known as first-time reinstatement. If that is not possible, due to inappropriate weather conditions for materials to set or the unavailability of specialist finishes, the utility company can make a temporary or interim reinstatement to allow the highway to be safely returned to use as quickly as possible. The permanent reinstatement is then carried out within six months. Local authorities can carry out inspections to ensure that sites are safely laid out and that the reinstatement is to the appropriate standard immediately after it has been done and is still adequate two years later, just before the guarantee expires.

Utility companies are investing in developing innovative ways of working to minimise the amount of excavation that needs to take place or reduce the duration of works when they are maintaining or upgrading apparatus. For instance, gas and water companies are placing plastic pipes inside existing pipes rather than excavating a trench along the entire length of the mains. The most important thing is that the reinstatement is suitable for the level of traffic using the road and that deterioration does not take place. The 2004 Act provides new powers for local authorities to require those undertaking the work, such as utility companies, to resurface a street following works, but those powers have not yet been commenced. Their implementation will require new affirmative regulations and a statutory code of practice on how the powers can be exercised. Discussion with key stakeholders, especially local authorities and utility companies, will need to focus on the circumstance in which the powers could be exercised by local authorities; the extent of resurfacing that would be appropriate; whether a requirement to resurface a particular street could be placed on several utility companies; whether a financial payment could be made instead of resurfacing, and how that would be calculated; and when and how local authorities contribute to the cost of resurfacing by a utility company.

Careful consideration needs to be given to how the provisions in the 2004 Act should be delivered to ensure that there are no unintended consequences that adversely impact on either the travelling public or the customers of the utility companies. We prioritised our 2004 Act programme after we listened carefully to the views of our key stakeholders, who are, as I have mentioned, the local authorities, utility companies and their contractors. We keep in close touch with our stakeholders’ opinions and if they have a strong view that we need to change our priorities, we will take that into account.

Implementation of the 2004 Act with regard to works on the highway by utility companies initially focused on the changes to the powers to co-ordinate and direct when works may or may not take place, and those regulations came into force in April. The next phases are revising the inspections regime—to ensure the safety of works and the quality of reinstatement—the safety code of practice and how records of buried assets are recorded and shared with others. Those important areas of work have been given priority, as inspections will help to ensure that works are carried out to the appropriate standard and improved records of buried assets will ensure that excavations are carried out in the right place and that the risk of damage to other people’s assets is minimised, along with the risk to workers and the general public.

Department for Transport officials continue to work closely with the local authorities, utility companies and others to ensure that the regulations and statutory guidance are proportionate and practical. However, we need always to remember that regulations alone are not enough. As the examples I cited from Staffordshire and London show, early communication can deliver benefits for authorities, industry and more importantly, the general public—the customer common to both authorities and utilities—through reduced congestion and the reliable provision of water, energy and communication.

Good relations at both a working level, to deal with day-to-day issues, and, more strategically, to share good practice, are essential for the effective management of street works by all parties. The Department must work—and will continue to do so—with the whole sector to help build the right relationships for an effective, pragmatic approach to co-ordinating these essential works that will deliver the outcome needed: the minimised impact of works on road users and the provision of reliable essential services.

I conclude by again congratulating my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I know that he, like his Labour colleagues, will continue to ensure that the new arrangements work as well as possible, and I commend him on that as well.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes to Eleven o’clock.