Fine times ahead

IntroWater companies could soon be hit with daily charges for digging up roads - and hefty fines for late completion of roadworks. Dean Stiles reports.

As with taxes that once imposed only ever increase, so with roadwork permit schemes. The Government is considering raising fines for late completion of roadworks as high as £25,000 a day – just six months since the introduction of the roadwork permit scheme in the UK.

It is also considering road traffic law changes to allow authorities to charge utilities a daily hire fee for digging up lanes on the busiest roads.

In the face of this, you could be forgiven for assuming that the roadwork permit scheme – designed to reduce the impact of roadworks on traffic congestion – had not worked. Yet initial findings based on surveys in London say otherwise.

A survey on March 16 showed 617 roadworks were under way on London’s major roads, almost a third lower than the same day in 2009 when there were 901 roadworks active on red-routes.

Thames Water has been innovative in tackling roadwork-induced traffic congestion and in April 2009 became the first UK utility to cover road excavations with high-strength plastic plates, allowing motorists to use the road as normal during rush hour before resuming work when traffic flows reduce. It has covered more than 3.5km of trenches using this technique in central London.

A spokesman for London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson, says: “We may have seen encouraging signs in the way roadworks are coordinated and an increase in working outside peak hours is more than welcome, but anyone using our roads knows there is still a lot more we can do to ease disruption.”

The mayor views the current permit scheme as an interim measure on the way to full lane rental where utilities would pay per minute of digging time instead of the fixed fee with penalties if work takes longer than agreed. But politicians are adept at pointing the blame for roadworks at utilities neatly ignoring the fact that local authorities, the bodies administering the schemes, are equally responsible.

Transport for London (TfL) and London borough councils have from the start been in discussions with the Department for Transport to allow the introduction of a lane rental scheme alongside the permit scheme on the Transport for London Road Network.

This measure, part of the Mayor’s transport strategy, would require utility companies to pay a rental charge for every day that they work on a street, rather than a one-off charge. This would sit alongside the permitting scheme, and encourage the utility companies to manage their work time more efficiently, says TfL.

The cost of these schemes – in London alone it is £2.2M annually – is ultimately borne by the public. “It is an additional cost and we did not believe that there was a sufficient benefit to the customer,” says Les Guest, chief executive of the National Joint Utilities Group (NJUG). “Undoubtedly those costs will be passed on to you and I as users in one way or another.”

NJUG, in its submission to the proposed amendment to charges for delayed roadworks, says that to be successful, any approach to reducing disruption to road users must start by recognising that both utilities and local authorities carry out work in the carriageway and both are responsible for about the same proportion of disruption – about 5% of the total disruption to road users each.

Targeting measures just at utilities, or just local authorities, will not solve the problem, says the NJUG. “Our view is that it is only by utilities and local authorities working together through better co-ordination, communication and co-operation that significant progress will be made. The key to this is the Network Management Duty for local authorities to coordinate all works.

“To make this work effectively, all planned works should be required to be registered in advance – whether they are carried out by local authorities or utilities – and central government should seek to spread best practice in carrying out the Network Management Duty.”

Although disruption can be caused by any works in the road regardless of whether they are utility or local authority works, overrun charges are not levied upon local authority work. This does not reflect the impact such works have on road users.

“If an incentive is needed to promote the right behaviour in relation to utility works, the same incentive is surely needed to promote the right behaviour in relation to local authority works. This would drive the correct behaviour by all and ensure the travelling public benefit from any difference,” says NJUG.

The group’s main concern is that since the scheme includes all streets in areas that have signed up there is no incentive to prioritise roadworks and speed up works on the busiest roads. It believes that the increases proposed by the previous government are excessive and do not reflect the impact utility works have on road users, especially when consideration is given to the essential nature of safe and reliable utility supplies. The current level of overrun charges provide a sufficient incentive for utilities to operate street works efficiently and has successfully delivered significant reductions in agreed works durations since its introduction in 2001.

NJUG says: “There is no published data available that justifies a further increase in overrun charges before the impacts of the current charges have been properly assessed in relation to traffic volumes and journey times.”

The rationale put forward for the increases is the assertion that current charges do not fully reflect the impact of works on traffic-sensitive streets, and the consultation repeatedly refers to congestion and disruption to traffic on traffic-sensitive streets. But the proposals treat works that take place off the carriageway in the same way as works that are in the carriageway even though any disruption caused by works off the carriageway has no effect upon congestion whatsoever.

NJUG contends that if the impact of roadworks on traffic-sensitive streets justifies the increase, then the converse is true and charges for minor roads and footways should be reduced or even removed altogether.

Professor Stephen Glaister, director of the RAC Foundation, agrees the greatest drawback of the London scheme was its failure to provide any incentive to complete roadworks on the busiest stretches quickly. “The Mayor is right to have identified this as a major loss of economic welfare. But the current scheme is clunky. It does not give strong incentives to plan ways to minimise the time the road is closed.”

Contractors speaking privately are suspicious about the scheme, believing the charges have more to do with raising revenue than traffic congestion. With local authorities under financial pressure, the revenue potential will become attractive.

The Highway Authorities and Utilities Committee and DfT working group discussions before the regulations were introduced were based around minimal safety equipment left on site safely located to the side for collection, as distinct from works actually taking place on site and barriers protecting excavations. Many authorities take this literally and if there are two cones or a cone and a sign placed safely on the side, they still opt for full s74 charges [charges for unreasonably prolonged occupation of the highway] rather than applying the process to allow speedy removal. This is particularly the case where authorities have contracted out this functionality and appear more driven by income rather than the disruption caused to the public, says NJUG.

It points out that Section 3.5 of the consultation indicates that the DfT “expects” the full charges only to apply where significant disruption affects road users, and section 3.6 notes that the higher maximum charges are not intended to generate additional revenue for highway authorities.

“It would be helpful for the Government to confirm that as the stated purpose of the charges is to be a tool to encourage the right behaviour and minimise disruption, the ideal position would be for no charges to need to be levied, as works would be carried out with the agreed timescales to the required standard. This would provide a signal to all parties of the objectives of the charges, and would allay concerns that raising revenue might be an objective of charges,” says NJUG.

Worrying for contractors and utilities is the lack of evidence to justify the increase in charges, and lack of any defined criteria against which to measure the success of the scheme. The suspicion that the distinction between permits and taxation is blurring remains powerful.

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