Street works reforms: The view from utilities

23/04/2024
Clive Bairsto

The Department for Transport (DfT) has unveiled new plans for how councils should employ street works fines and lane rental schemes. Clive Bairsto CBE, chief executive of Street Works UK, calls for collaborative reform in street works regulation.

Potholes and road works cause unending headaches. As the chief executive of Street Works UK, representing utilities and their contractors, I share these frustrations.

The state of our roads needs improving. While I commend the Government’s efforts to crack down on disruption and improve the quality of our roads, recent consultations launched as part of the ‘Plan for Drivers’ risk steering us down the wrong road.

While the principles are sound, the practical implementation of their proposals risks burdening utilities with excessive regulatory and administrative hurdles, hindering the ambitious goals of faster, greener infrastructure development and escalating the costs of modernising broadband, water, energy, and heat networks.

The proposed reforms, including changes to requirements around the designation of surplus funds from lane rental schemes, the increase of Fixed Penalty Notice (FPN) charges, and the extension of FPN fines for overrunning street works into weekends and bank holidays, may inadvertently hamper the working relationship between utilities, highway authorities, and the Government.

The lack of clarity on the envisioned relationship and the potential impact on the quality of road repairs also raises concerns.

Utility companies don’t want a free pass when things go wrong. On the limited occasions when works fail, our members act quickly to address the problem and remove potholes. We are required to do so by law. We support performance-based rules that encourage high standards and ensure that bad practice is cut out of the sector.

What we do not support is uncertainty. The penalties that utilities receive are not just for potholes, but a whole host of other issues, some of which have no significant bearing on the quality of works or impact on disruption. We need to design the regime to remove practices that disrupt drivers and leave our roads in a worse state by both utilities and local authorities. That means a focused, clear and performance-based approach that applies equally to utilities and local authorities.

We are also at risk of re-writing a scheme first designed to encourage street and road works to not happen at the busiest time or on the busiest roads. Lane rental, which charges utilities to work in the most traffic-sensitive locations and times, risks becoming a blunt instrument for dealing with disruption due to the proposed reforms.

Previously designed to encourage good practice of effective road management, collaboration and speed, proposals to divert up to half of funds towards road maintenance will turn the scheme into an extra cost of doing business. Instead of encouraging utilities to avoid working at certain times and places, we will just increase the bill. Ultimately, it will do nothing to help minimise disruption.

To foster collaboration between highway authorities and utilities, the DfTmust introduce clearer mechanisms for transparency and accountability. Performance-based systems, tiered charges based on breach severity, and involving utility industry stakeholders in setting compliance thresholds can create a fairer penalty system and enhance work standards to the benefit of the wider society.

In the broader context, the Government must work with the industry to simplify guidance, drive consistency across local authorities, and provide a long-term plan to address the road maintenance backlog.

Ensuring parity between authorities and utilities here is important not only to balance the resource load between all parties, but also to build public support for the work of the DfT in dealing with road disruption: people do not care which organisation is blocking their roads.

Collaboration is key to incentivising behavioural change in street works practices. Therefore, Street Works UK, and the industry as a whole, stands ready to work with the Government to pave the way for a more efficient and equitable street works system, tackling potholes, and ensuring a smoother road ahead for all.

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