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Disruptive influence

Imminent changes to the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991 are likely to help tip the balance towards trenchless technology by charging clients and their contractors for occupying road space. Richard Bennett weighs up the proposals.

Street works are an emotive issue.To the general public and media they are one of the most visible activities in civil engineering and probably the most annoying.

Everybody knows of an urban street that has been opened up by a utility contractor then seemingly left unattended for weeks.Once it is finally closed, another utility comes along, digs up the same section and the cycle is repeated.

Whether this scenario is urban myth or reality, there is no getting away from the fact that even good quality reinstatement damages road pavements, requiring more frequent resurfacing. The results are congestion, poor ride quality, frayed local tempers and a bad reputation for civil engineers.

Under the New Roads and Street Works Act (1991), contractors who are licensed by the Department of Trade & Industry as statutory undertakers must notify the local authority of any non-emergency street works they intend to carry out, giving a nominal start date. But once works have begun, contractors can in effect extend their duration indefinitely.

Local authorities can conduct inspections and fine utilities for poor quality reinstatements, but have no powers to force them to finish the work on time.

'The Act was put together with a cosy ethos, ' says Andy Elmer, head of environment and development at the Local Government Association. 'Things are different now, especially with all the cable utilities.'

It is common practice among large contractors employed by utilities to reduce costs by having several dedicated gangs - ie for breaking out, excavation, reinstatement - circulating around a number of jobs at a time. This is why street works appear to be unattended most of the time.

Whether or not that is the case, change is in the air. In September the Government issued the latest in a series of consultation documents on charging utilities for overstaying their welcome on non-emergency street works. Consultation closed in October and the plans are to enact Section 74 of the NRSWA this April. This will allow local authorities to charge utilities up to £500 if they overstay on traffic-sensitive routes. Emergency repairs, which account for 80% of street works, will be exempt from charges.

This penalty should focus utilities' minds, but could prove difficult to enforce. Statutory undertakers will be given a prescribed free period to complete the work, probably three days to a week, but will still be able to apply for extensions, due to 'unforeseen circumstances' Local authorities will have to assess the validity of these submissions on a case by case basis and this could prove to be a technical and administrative nightmare. The electronic notification scheme, known as ETON, is intended to simplify this process, and flag up when works have overstayed. Under ETON, local authorities are able to build up a database of proposed utility works, including scheduled completion dates.

Rather than charging for overstaying, another option is to charge utilities from day one of the works - effectively a lane rental system as used on trunk road maintenance.

Motoring organisations favour this because it could reduce traffic congestion. Other groups fear it may have negative effects. According to NJUG, the utilities' trade association, lane rental will not make any difference to the number or length of works but will simply create additional costs, which groups such as the British Chamber of Commerce fear will be passed on to customers.

The lack of hard data on whether utilities actually do prolong works will also make it difficult to assess whether the charging scheme adopted is working effectively.

Whatever penalty is used to ensure street works are finished quickly, local authorities will still be left with the task of ensuring reinstatement quality meets the Specifications for Highway Works which sets standards for reinstatement work.

Nationwide, only 6% of reinstatements are inspected.Of those, average failure rates can be as high as 60%.

Transgressions currently attract fines as low as £14.50.

The Government proposes that any revenue generated from overstaying charges could be ploughed back into the system, but it is unlikely that this will be enough to increase inspection rates. What all parties do agree on is the need for increased co-ordination, and this is gradually being piloted through schemes such as the Central London Partnership.

NJUG is generally opposed to the introduction of Section 74. It says those using the road are the same business and domestic users who require utilities' services.

NJUG says the utility companies and the highways authorities need to achieve a balance between these two sets of interests through improved co-ordination of works and use of new techniques where practical. Which adds up to good news for the trenchless sector.

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