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An unethical search for profit?

There has always been the potential for danger in construction when breaking ground – whether it is through piling, boring or open excavations.

Not knowing what lies beneath can cause problems. This is why companies routinely request statutory undertakers' plans of underground apparatus (stat plans) from utility companies or businesses offering search services. But there is a creeping revenue charge made by a number of utility providers for services that were historically free of charge.

Utility record searches were looked on as important health and safety services and were free because they offered information that not only helped avoid injury, but also protected the issuing company's own assets.

Diagrams detailing the expected position of a service, or clarification that none existed in a particular location, have previously been issued by electricity companies without charge. Now it appears they are following a minority of water authorities looking to generate income for each document sent out.

Some telecommunications companies charge for a search of their records, whether they own apparatus near to a site being investigated or not. With other utility companies likely to follow suit, this could be the thin end of an expensive wedge.

These records are surely issued as a planning tool to avoid contractors damaging utility providers' assets and reduce the danger of a cable strike. So is it right that the asset owner should earn income from this? Surely it is in its own interests that nobody excavates near to one of its services.

It has been mooted that some telecommunications companies who do not charge, but whose plans may not be very accurate, are not totally unhappy when a service of theirs is damaged during ground works because they will insist on a new service being installed at the contractor's cost.

The cost of a stat plan search may seem low, but not when you imagine that in an urban environment 30 requests may be needed to ensure the health and safety brief has been met under CDM regulations. If a charge of £40 is made for each one, this could cost over £1200, when in the past it might have cost only £50 to £100. This may reduce the amount of detail in which a small contractor wishes to make its stat plan searches and, therefore, add potential dangers to workers breaking the ground on that site.

Further difficulties may occur because of the increased level of small purchase orders an organisation will need to raise when requesting stat plans, which could slow down site investigations.

But ethically, should utility providers be earning money from a service of this type at all? They do not own the land and their infrastructure is permitted to reside within public and private land for the benefit of the nation as a whole. Is it because some have outsourced record keeping to companies who need to earn a profit?

Communications industry regulator Ofcom says there is no legislation on fee charging but that these services should be non-profit making. However, who gauges if this revenue stream is earning a profit or not?

According to one consultant, which manages such an outsourced service, it issues up to 5000 reports a week. If it costs £47 for each, this is a potential earning of £235,000, surely there must be some profit in that?

It looks like more cost for vital records will be a part of planning and site investigation work in the future. Let us hope the costs do not outweigh the need.

Nigel Knowles is managing director at Geotec Surveys

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