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Losing street credibility

The Government is planning to charge utilities for digging up the road. It may prove to be a difficult task. Richard Bennett reports.

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 hole is opened up nearby shortly afterwards and the cycle is repeated.

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, 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 started, contractors can effectively extend the duration indefinitely.

Local authorities can inspect 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 circulating around a number of jobs at a time. One gang will break out the pavement, another will come along and work on the services and a third will come back and reinstate. It could be a week or more between each gang's visit.

This is why street works appear to be unattended most of the time. 'The statutory undertakers get away with murder, ' a London highway engineer told NCE.

Although the National Joint Utilities Group hotly disputes that there is any hard evidence that works are unnecessarily prolonged, Elmer says 'It's true that nobody has really studied it, but we know it goes on'.

But 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 nonemergency street works.

Consultation closed this month, and the plans are to enact Section 74 of the NRSWA in April. This will allow local authorities to charge utilities up to £500 for every day utilities overstay on traffic sensitive routes. Emergency repairs, which account for 80% of street works, will be exempt from charges.

This penalty may focus utilities' minds on getting their contractors out of the road, 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 planned electronic notification scheme, known as ETON, is intended to simplify this process, and flag up when works have overstayed.

Under ETON, local authorities will be able to build up a database of proposed utility works, including scheduled completion dates.

But some feel this may be open to abuse. 'It will save the taxpayers money, but will make it even easier for undertakers to apply for extensions, ' a local authority highway engineer told NCE.

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

Motoring organisations favour this option as it could reduce traffic congestion. Other groups fear it may have more negative effects. 'We believe it may discourage utilities from carrying out necessary works, ' says the British Chamber of Commerce. According to NJUG, 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 BCC fear will be passed on to customers.

And 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. Department of the Environment Transport and the Regions, which is co-ordinating the current government consultation exercise, has accepted that the benefits are not currently quantifiable which, according to NJUG, 'dilutes justification for introducing the scheme'.

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 the total road openings are inspected. Of those inspected, average reinstatement failure is as high as 60%. Transgressions attract fines as low as £14.50.

'We are just not resourced to inspect any more, ' says Elmer.

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 coordination, and this is gradually being piloted through schemes such as the Central London Partnership, (see News).

Although not practical in all cases, solutions such as joint trenching have been used with some success.

And whatever stick is ultimately chosen by the Government to wave at the utilities, it will probably be coordination - as in other sectors of construction - that will prove to be the most effective solution.

Options for charging utilities

Section 74 - overstay charging Standard daily rate for taking longer than agreed time Higher rate for London Higher rate for traffic-sensitive areas Exemptions for short works on non-sensitive routes to reduce administration Same rate for footways as carriageways Authorities to keep revenue to run the system Review after three years Lane rental - charging from day one Daily rate charged from first day on site Possible higher charges for London and traffic sensitive streets Possible exemptions for short works Possible variation in charges for extent and location of works Revenue to be used to run the system with surpluses paid into central funds NJUG on charging utilities for overstaying on street works 'There is no available evidence to indicate that utilities unnecessarily prolong works, and there is no justification for the introduction of Section 74 provisions as an aid to reducing disruption. Those using the road are the same business and domestic users who require utilities services, and the utilities, together with the highway authorities, seek to achieve a balance between these two sets of interests through improved co-ordination of works, joint trenching and the use of new techniques, where practical.'

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