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London: Street Works

Volume 620: debated on Thursday 21 December 2000

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Whether they will arrange for a census to be taken of all the holes in the road in the London area, making clear the age of each hole.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions
(Lord Whitty)

My Lords, it is fitting that on the last sitting day of the year 2000 we should return to the question of holes in the road. London boroughs and other local authorities should keep information on street works that are notified to them by undertakers, as well as information on their own road networks, on a street works register, although it may not be possible in all cases to obtain the precise information requested in the noble Lord's Question. However, early in the new year my department will launch a research project to assess the scale of street works in England, including London.

My Lords, while I am obliged to the Minister, does he agree that the mere fact that no one can possibly say how many holes there are in London's roads, who owns them or how long they have been there indicates a total lack of control of the problem? Will the noble Lord take time to remind highway authorities that they have a duty to make possible and sustain movement, not to impede it? Will the Minister also remind those who are responsible for digging the holes that their disregard for the convenience and interests of the public should not continue indefinitely, because that way they will win the detestation and contempt of the public?

My Lords, while I accept much of what the noble Lord says, it ignores the progress that has been made, particularly in central London, on the initiative of the central boroughs. The Central London Partnership, which together with the utility and cable companies co-ordinates the approach to this problem, is developing a forward plan for the purposes of routine maintenance to ensure that particular roads in central London are dealt with by all the undertakers only within a specified period of the year. That procedure cannot entirely cater for emergencies, but normal installations and repairs will take place on a much more rational basis. That plan is now being drawn up. As to the attitude of the undertakers, while there may have been an element of truth in what the noble Lord says, they now co-operate closely with the plan. My honourable friend Keith Hill will meet the cable and utility companies at very senior level early in the new year. We have made clear our concern that they should contribute to solving the problem.

My Lords, behind this amusing Question lies a very serious point which applies not only to London but to Manchester. Does my noble friend agree that one day this very serious point may be dealt with by suggesting to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, who is obviously short of Ministers, that he should appoint a Minister for the coordination of holes?

My Lords, the designation of ministerial responsibilities is entirely a matter for the Prime Minister, not me. I suspect my right honourable friend believes that he has already designated transport Ministers within the department. in particular my honourable friend Keith Hill, to deal with this precise problem. As my noble friend Lord Macdonald indicated to the House a few weeks ago, under the Transport Act we are taking new powers to ensure that, at least in part, the costs of road disruptions are met by those who undertake these works. By triggering Section 74 of the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991 next year and keeping open the possibility of full lane rental if serious problems persist, we now have the legislative means with which to deal with the problem. I believe that Ministers have already paid enough attention to this matter without the Prime Minister having to designate anybody else.

My Lords, is that not exactly the point? The Minister referred to Section 74 of the New Roads and Street Works Act. He promised us an order back in the spring and then said that it would happen by the autumn. It is now mid-winter. When was it laid, and where is it?

My Lords, the provisions of Section 74 will be triggered early in the new year. The provisions of the Transport Act to allow for full lane rental, which means that one pays from day one—whereas Section 74 is only for overstay—is to be kept in reserve and will be available to Ministers should the Section 74 powers not work.

My Lords, have the Government given consideration to the possibility that in major cities all of the services could be put into small tunnels under the roads so that access to them and the provision of new services would be possible without the need for any digging?

My Lords, it is hoped that these additional financial pressures will force companies into taking the matter more seriously. In certain locations there is a possibility of trenchless technology. The problem is that there is so much underground in the centre of our cites that is not properly mapped. In old city centres it is difficult to provide a single duct because there are already so many ducts in place. In new or less congested situations that is a possibility. Even in the City of London provision has been made for ducts for new works, but that does not deal with the problem of repairing existing facilities.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that except for emergencies, such as a burst watermain, no new holes should be dug in roads anywhere until train services are back to normal? The combination of endless roadworks plus 20 per cent more traffic than normal on the roads is fatal.

My Lords, first, there is not more than 20 per cent more traffic. If all those who previously travelled on the railways transferred to the roads there would be an increase in traffic of considerably less than 10 per cent. They are not doing so because rail services are beginning to improve and will continue quickly to do so in the new year. So that is not a problem. There is a need not only to maintain the roads, for which highway authorities now have the facilities, but also to improve and update Britain's cabling so that we can take advantage of the new technologies.

In many cases the increase in the number of roads being dug up is because we have made a step-change in adopting new technology, principally in city centres but increasingly elsewhere. That is a positive step, supported by the Government and which should be supported by this House. The measures that the Central London Partnership and authorities are taking better to co-ordinate this work and to ensure that particular parts of the city are dealt with at the same time are a major step forward.