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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 November, 2003, 09:19 GMT
Clampdown planned for road works
Road works
There are an estimated 4m "dug" road holes at any one time
A crackdown on utility companies digging up roads was promised in the Queen's Speech in an attempt to cut traffic congestion.

The Traffic Management Bill will give local councils more powers to control street works to avoid disruption.

The Highways Agency would also move from just building and maintaining roads to managing traffic too.

It would get its own traffic officers to sort incidents out and keep traffic moving, freeing up police resources.

Works charges

In the speech, the Queen said: "Legislation will be brought forward to improve traffic flows and manage road works more effectively."

The congestion-cutting plans are reminiscent of the Cones Hotline, John Major's headline-grabbing scheme for cutting traffic jams.

Motoring the organisation the AA estimates there are four million "dug" holes in Britain's roads at any one time.

The details of the extra powers are expected to include forcing companies to get written permission to carry out road works - at present they have to give notice to town halls.

There will also be new charges for scaffolding and skips causing congestion and higher fines for firms which abuse street works legislation.

Before the early 1990s, only a dozen or so companies had statutory rights to take a dig up public highways.

This grew to about 150 following the deregulation of telecommunications and other utilities and the advent of cable TV, all of which have a stake in the wires and pipes that run underground.

Upper hand

Recent efforts to bring order to the problem have had limited success.

Town halls were given the right to bill companies which overrun on their estimate for getting a job done.

But this has led some to say utilities deliberately overestimate the time needed for repairs, by up to 50% according to a recent report by Halcrow.

Recent research commissioned by the government suggested two trials of "lane rental" schemes - another idea which could feature in the bill - had made little impact.

'Tipping the balance'

Edmund King, executive director of the RAC Foundation, welcomed the new legislation.

"For far too long the utilities have been given a free hand to dig holes in the road and have given little consideration to extensive and expensive traffic delays that result," he said.

"This new government legislation will hopefully address the balance in favour of road users and pedestrians who suffer unnecessary delays because of over-running road works."

But Councillor Baroness Ros Scott, chairman of the Local Government Association's transport executive, warned against plans plans to create outside roadworks directors to work on top of councils.

That could produce extra bureaucracy and expense without easing congestion, she said.

New traffic officers

A major potential obstacle is that all utility firms, apart from telecoms, are allowed to pass on these extra costs to their customers.

The plans for changes to the Highways Agency are designed to take pressure for relieving road congestion off traffic police.

The agency would have its own traffic officers - uniformed "jambusters" - patrolling roads, sorting out incidents such as crashes and keeping traffic moving.

A Department for Transport official said: "This will free up 550 full-time officers to concentrate on crime in England and Wales."


Conservative shadow transport and environment secretary Theresa May was unimpressed by the plans.

She said roads and safety, as well as congestion, would not improve without a proper roads building and maintenance programme.

"All we have seen today is the government's apparent change in the role of the Highways Agency to become a network operator and a form of traffic police," said Mrs May.

"One must ask if the government is setting its face against more road building."

Liberal Democrat spokesman John Thurso said: " With the railways in crisis and road congestion haemorrhaging our cities, more could, and should, have been announced.

"In particular, the absence of a bill to champion road safety as promised by the government is very disappointing."

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