My Lords, the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991 places a duty on local authorities to co-ordinate works and on utility companies to co-operate. In addition, the Traffic Management Act 2004 allows authorities to introduce permit schemes, which better enable authorities to manage works for the benefit of all road users. The Government support permit schemes, which are currently in place in around a third of English authorities.
My Lords, I will answer the Question that has been put: except in an emergency, all programmes must be approved by the council before they are undertaken and the council must ensure that congestion on the roads is kept to a minimum.
The noble Lord is quite right. At the lowest level, there are notification schemes where the contractor has to notify the local authority. Where necessary, rules are put in place. If a local authority has a permit scheme, the contractor has to have a permit before he can start work, and if he overruns he is liable for penalty charges.
My Lords, does the Minister remember Lord Peyton and the very effective campaigns that he ran over many years on this exact issue of work going on in the streets? Is it not a fact that over the years councils have developed many more rights; for example, charging if local people are going to be held up by these schemes?
My noble friend is quite right. The main tool for local authorities is the permit system which, as I say, has been taken up by about a third of local authorities. Some local authorities do not need to use a permit scheme because they do not have congestion problems; others are developing their schemes. In addition, we are looking at lane rental, which has been piloted in London, and at one or two other lane rental schemes as well.
Is the noble Earl aware that the disruption outside this House over the past couple of days has caused great difficulty for Members who have to come and go by car or taxi? I declare an interest as one of those. That disruption is as nothing compared with what Black Rod has done to Members of this House with the system that is now in place. Will the Minister ask the Leader of the House to have a word with Black Rod to revert to the previous position where Members could come and go rather more easily?
The matter that causes most trouble on the roads is the fact that utility companies do not seal up the work that they do, so there is an ingress of moisture that in turn bursts the road surface. Will the Minister ask his right honourable friend in another place to see whether the agreements with the utility companies can be tightened up to ensure that they reinstate the roads properly after they do their work?
My noble friend makes an important point: reinstatement is an important issue. There are guidelines and local authorities should normally check that the whole reinstatement process is being done correctly.
My Lords, will the Minister express his condolences to Hampshire County Council, because every time it does a wonderful job in resurfacing a major road, either gas, electricity, water or telephone companies dig it up again? Are there any statistics that suggest that the Government have any reason to be complacent that we are making improvements in co-ordination rather than going backwards?
My Lords, I am sure that we are making improvements. The previous Government introduced a permit system that allows local authorities to co-ordinate roadworks as much as possible to ensure that they do not interfere with each other and that we do not have more works than are necessary. However, noble Lords have to understand that that is quite difficult when you have got telecoms going alongside water pipes and gas pipes.
In pursuit of the earlier question about reinstatement, does the Minister accept that one problem is that the utility companies that do the work often do not notify the local authorities when they have finished and therefore it can take weeks for the local authorities to put right the damage that some of these utility companies have done? Can the Minister offer any reassurance about the process of notification of when works are completed?
My Lords, I am not convinced that there is the problem that the noble Lord describes. With the permit system, the contractor has to tell the local authority when the work should be completed. If it is not completed on time, the local authority can impose overrun charges. However, I will take this up with my officials and make sure that there is not an unresolved problem.
My Lords, something is wrong in the state of Denmark and on the roads of Britain, too. The noble Earl has identified the virtues of the legislation passed in 1999 and 2004. Utilities are meant to notify, and to be subject to penalties, if they do not complete the work in time. However, statistics show that road congestion due to roadworks is costing £2 billion a year. What on earth is going wrong with enforcement in this area?
My Lords, unfortunately, my brief says that congestion costs the economy an estimated £4.2 billion a year, so we are fully aware of the problems. The permit schemes have not been adopted by all local authorities that would want to. We need to understand that we have got conflicting priorities: on the one hand we want to reduce congestion on the roads; on the other hand we want to introduce super-fast broadband-and that will require works on the roads. So we have got a problem to deal with.