All 1 contributions to the Roadworks (Regulation) Bill 2022-23

Wed 30th Nov 2022

Roadworks (Regulation)

1st reading
Wednesday 30th November 2022

(1 year, 5 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Roadworks (Regulation) Bill 2022-23 Read Hansard Text Watch Debate

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Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
13:33
Mark Francois Portrait Mr Mark Francois (Rayleigh and Wickford) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about the regulation of roadworks; and for connected purposes.

One of the great frustrations of modern life is queueing for ages in a line of traffic, inching forwards to get through a set of contra-flow traffic lights at the scene of some roadworks, only to then crawl past a large hole in the ground, heavily coned off, with absolutely no one working on the site, as you finally drive past it. According to data highlighted by The Echo newspaper, recent freedom of information requests showed that, during the 2021-22 financial year, there were over 77,000 street and roadworks in my county of Essex, making it the most dug up county in Britain and leading it to be infamously dubbed by UK Daily News as “the UK’s roadworks capital.”

London also has a major problem. Indeed, a black cab driver told me recently:

“in all my 32 years of driving a black cab Governor, I have never known the roadworks situation in London, to be as bad as this.”

However, the curse of prolonged and over-running roadworks is one that applies across the entire country, from motorways to country lanes, including in the newly bestowed city of Southend. My great friend, the late Sir David Amess, shared many of my frustrations regarding the regulation of roadworks, so while the Bill has 11 sponsors, as is usual, I confess that I like to think that, in cricketing terms, he is my 12th man today. I am also delighted to see his worthy successor, my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Anna Firth), in her place.

As we know, sometimes, roadwork delays are due to utility companies carrying out repairs or maintenance, broadband providers laying new fibre or property developers connecting new estates to the power grid. In many cases, however, the common denominator is a lack of any palpable sense of urgency whatever to get the job done, regardless of the inconvenience which is caused to the travelling public. As a constituency MP who has received a growing tide of complaints about the spiralling frequency of roadworks in recent years, I propose legislation to try to finally do something about it. In short, I want to try to can the cones, and I seek the support of the House today in doing so.

The Bill essentially has three key aims. First, it would give local highways authorities much stronger powers to control the granting of permits to anyone who wanted to dig up the highway network. Under the 2004 traffic management scheme, permit arrangements were enabled, allowing utility companies to

“book occupation of the street for specified periods for a specified purpose.”

However, currently highways authorities can only really refuse to grant a permit on safety grounds and, if those applying for one deem the work to be an emergency, the ability of the authority to refuse is even weaker still. The Bill would allow refusal on the grounds of causing unacceptable disruption and would materially strengthen the hand of councils to negotiate much tighter conditions, including stricter deadlines, when granting permits, so that companies would hopefully be prevented from over-running in the first place.

Secondly, the Bill would mandate highway authorities to take all practicable steps to “deconflict” roadworks in their areas, to prevent multiple works in the same neighbourhood from leading to near gridlock, especially during peak periods. Under section 59 of the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991, local authorities are required to co-ordinate roadworks to minimise disruption to road users. It states that

“local authorities shall use their best endeavours to coordinate the execution of works of all kinds.”

But the truth on the ground—what really goes on in practice, rather than just in abstract policy—is that some local highways authorities are clearly not following those requirements. For instance, a few years ago we had near chaos in my home-town of Rayleigh, when several sets of roadworks, on the main arteries in and out of the town, were allowed to proceed at almost exactly the same time. When we subsequently looked into why, it turned out that the official at County Hall who handed out permits to developers did not communicate with the one who gave them to utility companies. One constituent put it to me at the time that

“there seems to be no forethought or planning and no coordination—it’s ludicrous.”

The Bill would seek to rectify that by trying to ensure a much more joined-up approach, by imposing much stricter procedures on highways authorities that give out the permits, and it would also seek to prevent the same stretch of road from being dug up multiple times, in short succession, by different companies.

Thirdly, the Bill would materially increase the fines for roadworks that overrun. At present, under section 74 of the 1991 Act, local highways authorities have the power to fine utility companies for “unreasonably prolonged” occupation of the highway. The fine tariff is set out in the Street Works (Charges for Unreasonably Prolonged Occupation of the Highway) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2012, which provide for a maximum charge for “traffic-sensitive” streets of £5,000 a day for the first three days of overrun and £10,000 a day thereafter.

However, for streets that fall outside that tightly defined category, the fines fall away dramatically. Crucially, the fines have not been updated or adjusted for inflation since 2012. They are hardly likely to be a deterrent to major utility companies or housing developers, some of whom just accept them—on the rare occasions that they are actually levied—as a cost of doing business. The Bill would significantly increase the penalties for overrunning beyond the schedule agreed when the permit was first granted. Persistent offenders could be fined up to 10% of their annual corporate turnover, which should make even the most tin-earned company sit up and listen.

In the most egregious example that I can cite, at a single junction named Sadlers Farm, which borders my constituency, there have been ongoing roadworks for more than five years, with much of the highway coned off and speed restrictions in place, although with precious little work actually taking place. That is due to an ongoing dispute between Essex County Council and Balfour Beatty, yet we still have no definitive date for when these so-called “works” will ever be finished. I suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris), who is in her place beside me, will have considerable sympathy for my proposal.

As an MP with more than two decades of service, I know that it is a rare thing for a ten-minute rule Bill to make it on to the statute book. Nevertheless, I hope that the Government might yet be minded to grant it Government time to assist its passage. Failing that, I would like a meeting with the Transport Secretary, so that we can seek at last to “can the cones”, either through legislation or, at the very least, by strengthening Government guidance to highways authorities to achieve the same effect.

In summary, no one likes roadworks, but everyone reluctantly accepts that they are sometimes a necessary evil. However, the spirit of the Bill is to say, in essence, “If you really do have to dig up the road network, get in, do what you have to do as quickly and safely as possible, and then get out of the way and get the traffic flowing again.” This is not a partisan issue; it is something on which all Members of Parliament and, even more importantly, their constituents can agree. Let us get the traffic flowing. Let us can the cones.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Mr Mark Francois, Sir James Duddridge, Stephen Metcalfe, Sir John Whittingdale, Vicky Ford, Richard Drax, Mrs Emma Lewell-Buck, Mr Marcus Fysh, Mr David Jones, Mr Laurence Robertson, Priti Patel and Craig Mackinlay present the Bill.

Mr Mark Francois accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time Friday 20 January 2023 and to be printed (Bill 203).