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Minimum disruption roadworks

DEBATE: Nothing enrages the general public more than the disruption on urban roads caused by the likes of BT, Transco and cable companies. This week we ask: Should minimum disruption construction techniques in urban areas be mandatory?

The facts

The New Roads & Streetworks Act (NRSWA) 1991 came into effect in 1993.

Under the Act, utilities have to give advance notice of work they plan to do. They are also supposed to co-ordinate with each other.

From 1 April utilities face fines of up to £2,000 a day if streetworks operations overrun, after the enactment of section 74 of the NRSWA.

Section 74 demands that utilities give local highway authorities a completion date for all streetworks, but it stops short of forcing the utilities to pay lane rental charges.

The government is set to pilot a lane rental charging scheme in Middlesbrough this summer.

The National Joint Utilities Group (NJUG), which represents all the major utilities, is to respond to the new challenges by launching a public awareness initiative this summer.

Bromley Borough Council successfully prosecuted cable company NTL for 22 offences under NRSWA earlier this year.

Bromley magistrates fined NTL £10,250 and ordered it to pay £15,000 costs.

Yes James Thomson, chairman, Jason Consultants Group

Our roads and streets have two important functions: the surface provides the means for pedestrians and vehicles to go about their business, while the space below holds utility pipes and cables. Increasing traffic and greater demands by utilities to install, rehabilitate and maintain their equipment cause a conflict for the space available.

But this conflict is one-sided.

The utilities create the disruption and the community carries the burden. Utilities bear only the direct costs of working in our streets and the community bears all the indirect costs. Two studies have revealed the extent of these indirect costs. Excluding the environmental issues, UK communities pay an estimated £2bn a year - a figure greater than the direct cost of the work.

This represents a massive subsidy to the utilities, all of which are privately owned.

In the last two decades a raft of new trenchless technologies have been developed which can greatly reduce disruption. But these, like any other method, must be planned and managed to maximise their advantages and minimise disruption to the public. As there is no current obligation on the utilities to take this into account, they don't.

Why should the use of trenchless techniques in urban areas be made mandatory? At present, the utilities work, quite rightly, within the existing legislation and stick to the rules. Just because many of the rights of utilities go back to the first part of the 19th century before cars were invented changes nothing.

We have to change the rules.

As things stand, no single body represents and protects the community's interests. No fair balance exists between the interests of the utilities and the community. Only through legislation can we redress the imbalance and give protection to the community and minimise unnecessary disruption to our streets.

No Bill Linskey, chairman, NJUG

All utility street works are carried out for a purpose - to benefit customers and improve the essential services on which we all depend. Of course NJUG members recognise that street works by their nature can add to already existing congestion, and are committed to completing them within the shortest time with the least disruption. To do this NJUG members use a full range of techniques and technologies.

Surely, these days, the case for trenchless technology scarcely has to be made. Trenchless technology is well established, tried and tested. NJUG members are at the forefront of putting it into practice as they have always been. However, to move on from the undoubted merits of trenchless technology to the proposition that it should be made mandatory seems almost bizarre.

As with all engineering solutions, the use of trenchless technology is a matter of horses for courses. In the right circumstances it can be the best solution, but it is not always right for all circumstances. In the utility arena, we all know of instances where the inappropriate use of trenchless technology has led to substantial inter-utility damage with consequential losses and delays. As always, choosing the appropriate technological solution for any given situation is a matter of engineering judgement. It would be quite wrong to fetter that engineering judgement by making what is only one possible solution mandatory.

The term 'mandatory' implies some sort of legal coercion or sanction. The last thing we need is to open the door to legal wrangling and argument. In some cases there may be engineering arguments to be thrashed out, but any debate as to the best technology to use in any particular case must be left in the engineering arena.

No one will gain from having lawyers seconding-guessing engineers.

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