It is difficult not to greet with some scepticism the news that City Hall
is setting up a new website and hotline to “name and shame” companies that
clog up the streets with interminable roadworks. So there will be, we are
told, 200 police community support officers imposing on-the-spot fines of
up to £500 on the most egregious offenders. But will they be able to check
the 4,000 roadworks a day in the capital?
It’s not just that we have heard it all before. It’s the number of times
that such promises have been broken.
Every London driver hates roadworks: they do far more to create traffic
chaos than accidents, broken traffic lights or even major demonstrations.
Those messy collections of cones, temporary traffic lights and rickety
fencing are the bane of every motorist’s life. Yet they keep on
proliferating. Only recently we heard that Marylebone Road, the major
east-west artery north of the river, was dug up nine times in 16 months.
So politicians at every election promise to sort out the problem. Ken did
it, and Boris did it. And it goes back much further than that: Mrs Thatcher
did it and John Major did it too – remember the Cones Hotline, up there
with the Dangerous Dogs Act as the most embarrassing political initiative
of the decade?
Back in the early 1990s I remember attending press conferences about
proposed new legislation that would make the utilities pay rent for the
lanes that put out of use, thereby inducing them to carry out the work
faster. To no avail: the utilities protested, blocking any attempt to
enforce the legislation.
Now we are back to the starting line on that idea, with the Government
consulting on “lane rental” and promising legislation. We’re told we might
have a system in place in London by next spring.
But the utilities will make the same excuses. And in the intervening years,
the problem has got worse. It’s not just the gas, water and electricity
companies now. A whole new breed of cable companies are competing for the
space under our streets and installing the communications systems on which
we all now depend. They all use contractors and sub-contractors, which
means that no one has any idea of who exactly is responsible for that pile
of earth or those few desultory cones that have been blocking a major
intersection for weeks.
And don’t even mention “coordination”, the other promise made by
politicians over the years, including Boris. It seems so simple: get the
utilities to use the same holes and work together. But it never happens.
Either they can’t be bothered to talk to each other, or they claim to be
responding to emergencies.
Yet the solution is simple. Ministers do not need to consult yet again.
They should just ignore the blandishments of the utilities, who claim that
life as we know it will end if they cannot dig up our roads at will and
that they will charge consumers extra. We should impose lane rentals that
are high enough to make them speed up the work and fine them mercilessly if
they do not stick to agreed timetables.
The utilities have had it too easy for too long. Naming and shaming doesn’t
work for the shameless. But hitting their bottom line does.