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Street Works (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2007

Volume 688: debated on Wednesday 24 January 2007

rose to move, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Street Works (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2007.

The noble Lord said: I expect this to be incredibly controversial; I know how controversial going around and digging up the roads can be. The idea is that we want to bring a bit of order to it. The purpose of the order is to introduce stronger powers for the control of street works, with the aim of minimising disruption and reducing traffic congestion. It seeks to introduce provisions for the control of street works—I have to keep a straight face now—broadly in line with those already in force in England and Wales—as though they were perfect; I am sorry, I have to be professional about this—by the enactment of Parts 3 and 4 of the Traffic Management Act 2004.

I will comment briefly on the order and say a few words about the detailed provisions, but I will not detain the House too long. The order includes the power to introduce a scheme requiring utilities to obtain permits before they could carry out street works. Conditions could be attached to the permit: it could be a requirement, for example, that only one lane of a road would be dealt with at a time. A permit could set out various terms and conditions to ensure that the work is managed with the minimum of disruption. We are also proposing that street authorities will have direction-making powers. For example, it could be specified that work could be done on days of the week, as well as at times of the day, when they would cause less disruption.

Other new measures include a requirement for utilities, in certain circumstances, to resurface roads or to contribute to the costs of carrying out that work, and a restriction on certain street works for a prescribed period following the completion of substantial street works. After all, how many times have we seen streets dug up? There is a lot of disruption but everyone thinks, “Well, it’s got to be done”—but then, blow me, a couple of weeks later the same street is being dug up again. That is very frustrating for motorists, pedestrians and others who use our roads, so the power is being given to prevent that kind of thing happening. Maximum levels of fines could be increased for certain offences and a range of fixed penalty offences created, as well as a charging mechanism by which utilities would pay for the duration of their occupation of a road and for overrunning any agreed period of occupation. The public consultation revealed support for the proposals, with only the utility companies not supportive of all of the proposed measures. That tells us we may have got this right on behalf of the public.

We recognise that utilities provide services that are essential for the economic and social well-being of Northern Ireland, but we need to provide a better system for regulating the way in which roads are dug up and the number of times it can happen. The order will enable us to do that. We intend to put in place a system that is fair to the people who have put in the services, to those who want to use them and to road users who often face a great deal of disruption. Our intention is not to prevent work being carried out—far from it—but to ensure that it is done in a more efficient and better co-ordinated fashion.

The Government are confident that the proposed new powers should give us a more efficient system for managing street works and that, as a result, there will be a reduction in the disruption and congestion suffered by road users. I fully hope to see that put into practice when I visit Northern Ireland. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Street Works (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2007.—(Lord Rooker.)

I thank the noble Lord for the professional way in which he explained the order to us. I read it very much with tongue in cheek; I went through the Explanatory Memorandum in detail. I spent many years in the construction industry, which is closely associated with street works of one sort of another, and pound signs were bouncing around in front of my eyes. The contractors will find great excuses for getting control of a little more money for special restrictions. I can think of all sorts of ruses that the construction industry could dream up to find ways of forcing up the cost of works and putting more pound notes in the companies’ pocket. I seek an assurance from the Minister that this will be tightly managed.

I would like to know how the industry as a whole will be instructed; as the Minister said, the provisions are very detailed. How will the industry be inducted into it and how will complaints be dealt with? I imagine that the process of letting contracts will have to be changed to ensure that everything is signed for, understood and undertaken by contractors that have taken on public works in this field. Quite a lot of things need to happen on the ground, administratively and in practice, as a result of the order. Having said that, as a user of the roads in Northern Ireland—I do not have a car in this country—I am delighted that some order will be put in place. It is very necessary because we have some huge infrastructure schemes at the moment. Oil lines and gas pipelines are going backwards and forwards across the country, and when there is more capital investment in the water service, water lines will be renewed. All that will have a major impact on traffic flows at varying times in various parts of the country.

In principle, I support the order. In practice, I shall have my tongue in my cheek while I see how well the Government are able to make the order work.

The Minister will be pleased to hear that the Liberal Democrats welcome the order. We support its main objectives to achieve more efficient management of street works carried out by the utilities and, we hope, to reduce disruption levels. We also hope that the proposed increases in the powers of the department will help in a more co-ordinated and cohesive approach to the management of street works.

We recognise the concerns expressed by the utilities companies in Northern Ireland. There is concern about increasing bureaucracy and costs, particularly if those costs impact on consumers’ bills or cause difficulties to the utilities companies in providing their services to all parts of Northern Ireland. Can the Minister reassure the Committee on that point?

I apologise for being absent—I was at another committee meeting. The provision is very welcome, as there is nothing more irritating in Northern Ireland than to see a road that has been reconstructed and resurfaced and then, within a few weeks, to see a public authority come in to excavate again.

In some cases, the order gives total powers to the department that President Chavez of Venezuela would be delighted to have. It says:

“Conditions may be attached to permits in order to minimise disruption”—

and that is fine; but then it goes further and refers to,

“a restriction on the execution of street works for a prescribed period following completion of substantial street works”.

We do not know what that prescribed period is. I hope that common sense will prevail and that it will not be 100 or 50 years. What is the maximum?

The order refers to undertakers, but who are they? Is this simply directed against construction contractors or is it directed against former public authorities, such as the NIE and British Telecom? Will it apply to public authorities, such as the Water Service? The “prescribed period” may have to be changed following the issuing of the order: there could be an emergency in the road, such as a burst water main or sewage pipeline. Is there any provision for emergencies in the order? Once the prescribed period has been designated, how does one get round it if there is an emergency?

Yes, but. Perhaps in saying that I agree with it in principle, I should say that I have some admiration for the road service. Over the years, I have seen the efficiency of the service increase, and I pay tribute to people such as Malcolm McKibbin and Geoff Allister, as well as my own local engineer, Pat Doherty. They have done very well. With the major road works on the west side of Belfast, which affect me every time I come into the city, minimising the disruption is something that we appreciate. Perhaps this is the place to recognise that.

The order has 28 articles and two schedules and, as other noble Lords have intimated, it is far too complex for an Order in Council. It should be dealt with as primary legislation by a Northern Ireland Assembly. I wish that when a Minister came with a piece of legislation of any sort he had to carry with him all the paper that would form the paper trail attached to it. With this one, he would need more than the four aiders that he has sitting behind him to bring in the amount of paper that is going to be used. This provision will entail a huge increase in the number of bureaucrats—the people who will oversee the multitude of papers that will arise from the legislation. The Minister will probably guess the question that arises from this, but the provision will also require a huge budget. I am not an expert but, from what I can glean, it may be £30 million. I want to deal with that point.

We all want to see traffic moving easily and less disruption on our roads, but here we are using a sledgehammer—or should I say a jackhammer—to crack a nut. The only costs that I can see here are those that will arise if people infringe the legislation; that is, the penalties. I do not see anything that indicates what the provision will cost. The public utilities—the people who provide gas and water—will have huge bills. It is reckoned that, of the £30 million, the Water Service will probably have £15 million extra to pay. That is the advice I have had. Has that been budgeted for by the Water Service? What is going to happen in that regard? How will it retrieve its expenditure? Will that cost be added on to the already, for some of us, alarming cost for water?

People whom I have talked to within the public utilities have indicated that they had not been made aware of some of the issues or that they had not been consulted to the extent that they would have liked. Have provisions been made within the budget of the Water Service for these costs? Will the water consumer now pay for street works as well as water usage? Did consultation on water charging include this issue of additional costs arising from street works? Has the General Consumer Council offered a view on water customers paying extra charges to cover street works? Of course, I could repeat those same questions for the provision of gas or communication services of whatever sort.

It is important that the Minister gives us considerably more information. Ideally, I should love him to say at the end of this debate that he will take the legislation back and that we will deal with it in the Assembly as a proper piece of legislation. But I know that he is not going to do that.

Before I leave that point, I draw the Minister’s attention to an Irish news story today, which indicates that the increased costs could add £80 on to household bills as a result of the legislation.

There are other aspects of the order that I cannot understand. We know that we can cut a nice clean track in the road by sawing it—we do not dig it up any more—and that it is easily replaced. It is important that repairs are done efficiently, but why would we impose on the utilities the need to resurface the entire road? How would that be decided? I can see that it could happen but at who’s whim? I do not think that there is anything in the legislation to indicate how it would be done. If you dig a track in the road, put in a sewer, fill it in and top it off, it does not matter that you have repaired the entire width of the road. The important place that needs to be inspected and reinspected will be where the track was, because with the settling of ground and so on it may need to be resurfaced on more than one occasion. So what is the sense in saying that the whole road must be resurfaced?

If I had any reassurance that there was a fixed lifespan for every major or A-class road between normal resurfacing, where one could see where damage had been done, then, depending on the length of time until the next major resurfacing, a charge might be suitable. But would it not be nonsense to ask the utility companies to resurface a road now if the road was to be completely resurfaced by the road service in spring or early summer of this year? Nothing in the order appears to indicate partnership. It seems that the public utility companies, including the water service and gas suppliers, are being penalised.

What about the private developers—the people who really disrupt traffic? Where are they catered for here? How are they to pay part of the charges? I may be wrong, and the Minister may be able to reassure me, but I see absolutely nothing in terms of provision for private developers. Why are they not asked to bear some responsibility? Perhaps it is because this legislation has been put together in such a complex way that it would be virtually impossible to police every private development. That may be the answer but it is not good enough and it gives me concern.

Without wishing to offend the Minister, although I have done that already, there are things in the legislation to which I would refer as nonsense. The idea that someone with a bowler hat and rolled umbrella can come along and tell the engineer, “Take your apparatus from that road. It is a main street. Put it down that side street”, is—

As someone who is totally colour-blind, I could not possibly comment. This really is a matter for consideration. If we employ professionals, we require them to have properly trained people who should come along and say, “You must move your equipment off-site because it may cause a diversion”.

Those are some of the questions that I must ask about this legislation. I should like to know whether there is a schedule of road works, because that would have an impact. If there were a fixed schedule of works for a class of road, one would be able to consider this legislation in a slightly different light. I hope that the Minister can reassure me that this will not be, as I suspect it will be—and as I think he suspects it will be—a bureaucratic nightmare.

I welcome any legislation that helps to alleviate traffic congestion, but I must admit to being a little confused, because Northern Ireland’s utilities are responsible for only about 5 per cent of congestion. The Department for Regional Development is responsible for carrying out most of the work on our roads, and I understand that this legislation does not apply to the road services. Having chaired meetings in Belfast regarding the likely disruption that the Westlink would have caused to the city, and having chaired Making Belfast Work, which brought together all the statutory agencies—transport, water, sewerage and roads—I am pleased to say that we were able to obtain a co-ordinated plan that, in general, alleviated some of the concerns that Belfast traders had over the potential disruption that could have been caused. So, I praise the road services and the Minister for bringing that about.

There are some concerns, however, that this would cost the utilities somewhere in the region of £15 million, as has been mentioned, while the Government say it would only be £7 million. I hope this discrepancy will not be passed on to taxpayers. Under the reform of local government, the responsibility for local roads will return to local authorities. I hope the money necessary to maintain our roads at a high standard will also transfer over. Those are a few of the difficulties I have but in general I welcome this order.

I am grateful for the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Browne, an ex-mayor of Belfast. My visits there are not very frequent. I was there on the first weekend in January and before that on the first weekend in December. I was going to say that whoever has planned the infrastructure, it will be a man in a bowler hat—and there is nothing wrong with a professional engineer wearing a bowler hat, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis.

Given the context of this debate, umbrellas and bowler hats have a number of connotations. I was not disparaging engineers, or indeed members of the Orange Order. I just wanted to know which one the noble Lord was talking about.

Professional engineers come in many guises. Some of them are women—even in Northern Ireland, I suspect. It might even be a woman who has organised this. My visits are less frequent than they used to be, but whoever has planned the timing and co-ordination of those massive infrastructure works in Belfast deserves a medal. It has been quite remarkable to watch, as I have done over the past 18 months or so during my visits there. Yet all we had from the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, was a whinge against bureaucrats who he thought could not organise things. Here is a classic example of something that has been really well organised.

The noble Lord has asked a series of legitimate questions.

Well, some of them are legitimate. If there are any emergencies, as one noble Lord asked, there is a provision for works to be classified as “immediate activities”. Utilities would not be required to give permits for emergency work, but, within two hours of starting work, they would need to tell the roads authority that they were on the job. That is not unreasonable.

We have had a lot of figures bandied about. The order will not come fully into force for quite a while because of the work that has to be done following the original legislation, but less congestion will be a benefit. You cannot put a cost on congestion, although economists attempt to do so when we are looking at new roads and so on. The cost of congestion is an enormous figure over a year, but it is difficult to say how it affects the individual wallet. However, all utilities, private or public, are regulated, and it would be up to the regulator to ensure that the costs passed on to the customer were consistent and that the customer was not simply ripped off.

I shall answer noble Lords’ specific questions in no particular order. Where a department intended to resurface a road, there would be a plan for that. There would be a programme of works, depending on the budget that was allocated. These things are not done willy-nilly; they have to be planned months, and in some cases years, in advance. The utilities might be asked to contribute towards the cost where they have been active in the excavations.

The noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, referred to private developers—presumably of housing or office blocks—who may be building or be required to build roads and access as part of the planning gain or planning permission. They will be required to put in and pay for the road infrastructure as part of the development, but they are not going around digging up the road for repairs. Essentially, we are talking about the utilities—the undertakers with responsibility for water, gas, electricity, telephone lines or perhaps TV cables. We are referring to all those things that are under the road or cross the road and may need repairing or upgrading from time to time.

I think the Minister misunderstood me. I was talking about occasions when private developers need to get access to existing sewers and other services. That happens quite frequently. In fact, unless it is an entirely new development with its own new infrastructure, such access will be required. Even then, that new infrastructure is often conjoined with something that already exists.

That is a fair point. I misunderstood the question. The answer to that point may just have been handed to me. The provisions of the draft order will not be applied to other works on streets—for example, road works or work carried out by private developers. The order will apply only to street works because work carried out by others in streets is controlled by separate legislation. It would not be appropriate to use street-work legislation to apply the provisions of the order to those parties.

When resources become available, the department proposes to review legislation concerning the works of private developers and others outside street works on roads and to introduce appropriate measures to control them better. In other words, we would need to look at other legislation. The noble Lord makes a fair point and I am sorry that I misunderstood his original question.

The figure of £80 was raised in relation to individual household bills. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, referred to an Irish news article in that regard. At the moment, it is impossible to say what extra costs will be added to utility bills. That will not be known until the regulations and codes of practice are developed in consultation with the utility companies. There is quite a bit of work to be done once this legislation gets on to the statute book. It will not happen overnight but will take a couple of years. A regulatory impact assessment will also be provided at that stage to ensure that the measures are good value for money.

I am in danger of being accused of whingeing, although I suppose that in some respects I am here to whinge when the Government put the cart before the horse. Is it not a good idea—the Minister admits that the situation is otherwise—to have some general costings before one puts a plan into operation? It seems ridiculous for the Minister to stand here and tell me, “We are going to do this. This will be the legislation, and then we will see what it costs the average household”. Targeting social need was supposed to be one of the platforms that this Government stood on with regard to the electorate. I worry about £80 or £100 per annum being added to the bills of the poorest households.

Frankly, that is unreasonable and scaremongering. This is partly enabling legislation. It gives powers for getting the permits and then, once they are secured, for consultation about the phasing and implementation of the measure. There is consultation with those affected, including the utilities which need to dig up the roads to replace or upgrade their services, a regulatory impact assessment and discussions with the regulators of the various utilities—gas, electricity and water—about how they will ensure that the public are not ripped off by costs being added to the bills. That seems to me to be good governance. Saying, “We’ve got all the answers; here is a piece of legislation”, is crazy when the evidence from the past indicates that that would not be the case.

It is wholly reasonable to take this approach. It is scaremongering of the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, to bandy about increases of £80 or £100 being imposed on the poorest people in Northern Ireland. No such figures have been produced by anyone of repute. They cannot do so because we have not yet gone through the regulatory impact assessment.

The noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, asked about the prescribed period. I am not sure that I have the cart before the horse. This refers to a prescribed period in which roads authorities can say that the road has been dug up a couple of times recently and there must be a moratorium before someone else comes along after a short period of time. The prescribed period for which a restriction on works may be imposed would be in the regulations. These will be developed with the involvement of the utilities. We need some regulatory authority through the Northern Ireland Road Authority and Utilities Committee. Prescribed periods could be between six months and three to five years depending on the type of road. So we are saying in advance to people who use the road that they have suffered a lot of disruption but, unless there is an emergency, there will be no more permits for work on that road for a period of time. That would be good for business as well as for commuters.

The figure I have on costs, according to the initial estimate, is that the permit scheme could cost all the utilities around £7 million annually, but work has to develop to determine the level of fees and how they are going to be set. That is some way down the road. By the way, I should like to think that a Northern Ireland Minister in the Assembly will be answering to Members in the Assembly on the way in which the detail is brought in. Clearly, that would be much more satisfactory.

I was asked who the undertakers were. They are Phoenix Gas, Northern Ireland Electricity, the Water Service and other people who place apparatus in or under the streets. The Water Service will be a government-owned company from April, but this is not the place to debate the water rates or the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, has had free water for far too long and should now be paying for it. I know that I should not have said that because I am making a rod for my own back.

Detailed provisions will come through in regulations. We have to contain costs; it is not a free for all. If the roads people say to utilities that they cannot close the whole road but can only work on one lane, or we want the work done between midnight and 6 am, for example, their staff will be paid more to do that in overtime. But, if that reduces the overall congestion and disruption to people’s lives, a public good comes from that.

The utilities were fully consulted during the consultations on the policy proposals in 2005 and on the proposals for the draft order in 2006. In November last year officials met representatives of the Private Utilities Group—seven utility companies that formed an alliance to lobby against the department’s proposals to discuss their concern. Officials have been asked to continue in consultation with the utilities in developing working practices for implementing the new measures. As the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, said, it has to be a partnership; it will not work if there is war between the utilities and the authorities. Doing this in partnership would be seen as a valuable contribution to the lives of the people in Northern Ireland.

I thought that debating this order would take about two minutes.

On Question, Motion agreed to.