LOCAL AUTHORITIES this week condemned Government plans to fine utilities and their contractors for overrunning streetworks, saying they would be unworkable.
They said the cost of gathering evidence and then charging utilities and contractors would far outweigh revenue from fines - expected to be limited to £1,000 a day.
The Government announced the plans last week in the face of mounting criticism from MPs about traffic congestion caused by streetworks.
Under Section 74 of the New Roads & Street Works Act 1991 - to be enacted later this year - local authorities will gain powers to fine contractors up to £1,000 a day if their contracts overrun.
But one London borough engineer claimed that the Act was unclear and that local authorities lacked the resources to press charges. Few utilities would be prosecuted, he predicted.
'The Act gives us powers to charge for unreasonably prolonged use of road space. Who is going to be able to arbitrate on the term 'reasonable'?' asked Hammersmith and Fulham assistant director of environment and transport Roger Khanna.
Defining how long different types of work should take, accounting for legitimate unforeseen conditions, taking evidence from witnesses and deciding charges would all take too long and cost too much, he added.
The Local Government Association mirrored Khanna's concern about resourcing. LGA head of environment and development Andy Elmer said fines should be geared to the amount of disruption caused by the roadworks.
Contractors were unconcerned by the threat of fines. On fixed price work, the cost of overruns often far exceeds proposed penalties, said contractor McNicholas chief executive Colin McNicholas. As a result, there was little extra incentive to complete to schedule.
He also noted that existing streetworks legislation enabled contractors to apply for extensions on condition they could be justified.
The fines will therefore be useful only in dealing with the handful of rogue firms which fail to complete work or leave materials and plant on site, he said.
McNicholas backed calls by the LGA and the British Roads Federation for the fines to be replaced by lane rental charges, payable by utilities for the duration of streetworks. Lane rental, which has been widely tested on motorway contracts, would encourage utilities to co-ordinate their streetworks programmes.
A spokesman for the Department of the Environment Transport and the Regions said lane rental would require new legislation, and was not favoured by Government.