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Digital clock

Vested interests threaten to scupper creation of a digital map of buried services, reports Christina Taylor.

The Traffic Management Act has sent utility companies and contractors into a lather with its proposed permit system and fines for unscheduled streetworks overruns (NCE 18 November 2004).

But away from the political wrangling, the ICE and research body UK Water Industry Research (UKWIR) have been working on ambitious plans to create a comprehensive digital database of buried services which could turn the Act on its head.

By accurately logging the location of the pipes and cables the database would remove the practise of hit and miss road excavation, so banishing congestion. Current knowledge of Britain's underground pipe and cable network is inaccurate, inconsistent and incomplete. In the long term, they argue, it could save utilities money.

'It is still true that the only way to guarantee where mains are is to dig a hole, ' says UKWIR client representative Jo Parker. 'And if you dig down looking for your assets and don't find them, it is an unnecessary hole.' The resulting traffic congestion is costing UK plc an estimated £12bn annually, and that ignores the human cost. Between 1996 and 2003 six people have been killed and 300 more seriously injured by cutting through live power lines.

But despite the obvious advantages, it has been a struggle to get people on board, says Parker. Progress has been hampered by professional jealousy, vested interests, financial concerns, and simple apathy.

The fact that a water industry body leading is the way has raised the suspicious of some utilities.

Recognising the need for a neutral 'champion', ICE Geospatial Engineering Board chairman Martin Cullen agreed to take on the task of establishing standards for data exchange.

The ICE's intervention has been crucial says Parker, 'because the ICE can genuinely be seen to be impartial'.

Cullen set up a Buried Services working group in 2003 and two years on it has produced a report agreeing some basic principles on cross-industry co-operation that will help shape the next phase of the database's development (see box).

But many questions remain unanswered, not least, the issue of how to incorporate historical data on known assets held by the utilities, which ranges from paper notes to state of the art GIS based digital records.

Information is often incomplete.

Positions are often charted on out of date county series maps which are no longer accurate.

Parker argues it is in the financial interest of all to make the scheme work. She cites one utility that pays out £3M a year for hitting others' assets - and claims back £7M for being hit.

The new regulations do not come into force until the autumn. Cullen fears what little momentum has been generated could be lost. The working group has disbanded, and 'if we do not have an independent, nonpartisan champion, there is a chance of it breaking up'.

INFOPLUS Download the full report at: www. nceplus. co. uk

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