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Financial penalties should control works

News - From next year utilities will face fines and extra costs whenever they dig up the road .

Heineken recently ran a beer advertisement in which various utilities contractors decide to share the same hole in the road to save the trouble of multiple excavation works.

The ad was used to highlight the unusual nature of such a scenario. This could change with the implementation of the Traffic Management Act .

The Act sets about bringing some much needed control to the seemingly random digging up of roads by utilities companies.

From early next year highway authorities will have to appoint a traffic manager to co-ordinate and monitor street works and will in turn be monitored by central government.

Additional powers are also given to highways authorities to exert more control over where and when streets can be dug up.

Those wishing to open up roads will have to apply and pay for a permit and the highways authority will have the power to impose time and date restrictions on the work to minimise congestion.

The Act brings a significant change to the existing system, where utilities only have to notify local highway authorities of work they plan to do before carrying it out.

Highways authorities themselves will also be obliged to co-ordinate their own road maintenance work with that of utilities and contractors.

There is no doubt that a new system is sorely needed to put an end to the frustrating sight of abandoned road works blocking carriageways at rush hour.

But complying with the law will not be easy. Welsh Water national road and street works compliance manager Steve Hannah gave an indication of just how difficult it could be at the Water UK Traffic Management Conference in London last week.

He said the company had carried out a desktop audit of 1,500 work notices sent to authorities. It found errors in 788 of them, the most common being inaccurate location details.

Such errors could trigger widespread fines under the provisions - a potentially expensive business for Welsh Water, given the scale of its problem.

According to members of the DfT working group on penalty notices, fines will be set at £120, which will drop to £80 if paid within 29 days.

Over 2M notices were issued by water companies alone last year, putting the potential annual bill for the water industry at over £80M.

Of course this is an avoidable cost and by being better organised, companies could eliminate it altogether, which is why the regulator is unlikely to allow the costs to be passed on to customers.

'Water companies will be able to apply for a interim price determination if the permit charges have a significant impact on their costs, ' said an Ofwat spokesman.

'But penalties will not be recoverable as it is the companies' responsibility to get it right.'

Transport for London is trying to set the benchmark for co-ordinating street works with its new online register, LondonWorks, which it hopes to have ready by October 2005.

'It will provide a Londonwide reporting capability and will integrate with local street works registers, ' says TfL chief operating officer, streets Peter Brown.

TfL plans to implement the permit scheme in London in April 2006.

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