Why are our streets riddled with holes?

Holes in the road. Don’t we all just hate them. And they seem to be ever more and more of them. It’s not just the traditional electricity, gas and water companies that are messing up our roads, but all the telecommunication and cable firms which are now adding to the chaos.

The perennial cry from motorists is why can’t the work be coordinated so that the same street is not dug up again umpteen times in a year. The answer is that in the clash of two groups with very strong lobbying power, the motorists and the utilities, the latter have won out time and again over the past decade and prevented any action to restrict their activities. But at last, the tide may be turning against them.

This problem was all supposed to have been resolved by the passing of the New Roads and Street works Act back in 1991. That was designed to ensure that the work between the various utilities was coordinated by local councils who would also have the right to charge companies who dragged their feet up to £2,000 daily per hole.

But amazingly, the law was not brought into force until April 2001, a decade after it passed through Parliament, because of a rearguard action by the utilities who promised repeatedly to get their act together and improve their coordination. But nothing happened during that lost decade except that the number of roadworks soared because of the spread of new telecommunications and cable companies with the result that 160 organisations now have the absolute right to dig up a road.

Technically, under the new law the utilities are supposed to inform the local council before they start work, telling them how long it will take. However, there is a big loophole: they do not have to report in advance any work deemed to be an emergency. And guess who decides what is an emergency? As Nick Lester, Director of Transport at the Association of London Government put it, ‘If one of their customers gets their phone cut off, the telephone company can argue that it is an emergency and dig the street up. So they consider over 50 per cent of holes as emergencies.’

Moreover, the utilities have become adept at playing a cat and mouse game with the local councils to prevent any restriction on their right to dig up streets as often as they want. It is the utilities which are responsible for providing the information to the councils and, not surprisingly, it is often completely inaccurate. Nor do the councils, some of whom have 25-30,000 holes dug up every year within their area, have the resources to check up on what is happening on – and under – the ground.

According to a spokesman for the Local Government Association, ‘the information is totally in the hands of the utilities and therefore it is very difficult for councils to enforce the charges against them’.

So no wonder the holes on our streets are more common than those in Swiss cheese. Now, in the face of fierce resistance from the utilities, the government is trying Plan B. The idea is that the utilities will have to ‘rent’ lanes of road off the councils for between £200 to £500 per day. The scheme is being tried in two local areas, Camden in North London and Middlesbrough and a report by consultants Halcrow assessing the idea is due to be published next month.

However an early draft leaked over the weekend suggests that the utilities are already trying to dodge the scheme. They get three days free before they have to pay anything and if they dig lots of little holes which can be filled in quickly rather than big ones, then they can get round the rental scheme.

The utilities are now fighting a fierce campaign to prevent lane rentals being adopted across the country. They argue that it would cost them £1.2bn per year and that inevitably householders would have to foot the bill. Moreover, it is unfair on new telecommunication companies, such as those fitting broadband for computers, who will have to rent lanes when their predecessors did not have to. A spokesman for the utilities organisation, NJUG, said: ‘This is not joined up government. One government department, Trade and Industry is trying to get people on the internet cheaply while the transport department is putting barriers in our way.’

The RAC Foundation, which has carried out research on the issue, is not sympathetic. Its spokesman argues that the utilities make high profits and that they could easily take the hit on the costs, especially if they made more efforts to coordinate their hole digging.

The motoring organisations feel that at last their efforts to get the government to clamp down on the utilities is finally bearing fruit: ‘The utilities have had it their own way for too long and have acted like spoilt children. It is finally time for them to act sensibly and stop resisting the inevitable.’

Ultimately, the way out is to stop the digging. New technology and the use of ducts that can have cable added or removed without digging holes is the solution. But that requires greater investment initially from the utilities and, again, they are proving resistant to spending the money. One possible way out would be to allow them to dig for free if they were putting in the ducts that would require no more holes. But that sounds a solution that is far too sensible and rational in this red-hot row which has gone on for over a decade.

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