It is estimated that a hole is dug every seven seconds to access these pipes and cables for repairs, upgrades and installations. This busy and usually unseen environment suffers from an estimated 60,000 accidental strikes per year, leading to injury, project delays, and disruption to traffic and local economies.
The total direct and indirect costs of these accidental strikes are estimated to be £2.4 billion a year. The National Underground Asset Register (NUAR) is a government-led programme aimed at streamlining the data-sharing process, reducing the number of potentially lethal utility asset strikes and promoting more efficient management and maintenance of underground assets. It’s envisaged to benefit asset owners, statutory undertakers and the wider economy by £350 million per year, and already contains data from all of the major gas, water and electricity asset owners in North East England, Wales and London, as well over 100 others.
Data shared between asset owners and excavators must be free. However, this requires asset owners to continually respond to requests from numerous excavators, and excavators to contact multiple asset owners to source it, with data provided in different formats, scales and varying timeframes.
For example, if you need to repair a water pipe because of a leak, you will need to gain situational awareness of the area surrounding a suspected faulty pipe, but you will only have records showing where your own pipe is buried. You won’t know what else is buried beneath the ground feet such as fibre optic cables which cause huge disruption to daily life if damaged by mistake. You also won’t have records showing the location of the more dangerous assets: electricity cables, gas pipes, street lighting and charging point cables – all of which can be potentially lethal if accidentally hit.
One of the things that utilities, telecoms, local and transport authorities, and businesses all have in common is that they require data from each other to safely carry out required works to install, maintain and improve the services that keep the lights and heating on, water running and laptops connected. The current process, however, requires project planners to first request data from each organisation, either individually or by existing market providers who provide a service to a number of asset owners but not all. They must ask who has or may have assets in the area, wait for them to respond, then package the data (often received as individual maps in different scales, formats and degrees of quality) in a manner that can be used by their workers. They will then repeat this process each and every time works are required. Centralising underground asset map requests will remove the administrative time and cost burden from the response side, estimated to provide data exchange savings and back office efficiencies (£115 million per annum; present value of £90 million per annum).
Over the past year, utilities and other organisations which own buried assets have been taking impressive steps to improve the way data is accessed and shared. Their purpose is simple – to provide better, more efficient services to their customers while improving the safety of their workers. One of the many ways they are doing this is through participation in the National Underground Asset Register (NUAR), a new standardised digital data-sharing platform for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, delivered by the Geospatial Commission, part of the Cabinet Office. Rather than waiting days or weeks to access each other’s data, organisations are sharing data through NUAR so it can be accessed on demand as and when it is needed by planners and excavators to more efficiently and safely serve our communities.
North East England
Utilities and local authorities in North East England have been instrumental in defining the technical requirements for the platform. Northumbrian Water Group (NWG) lead the way in demonstrating the feasibility and value of improving data-sharing through a proof of concept they developed with other asset owners in North East England as part of their annual NWG Innovation Festival. Utilities, telecoms and local authorities in the region then worked together to refine these requirements through a series of regular workshops. All work focused on how data-sharing processes could be improved to reduce accidental strikes and provide better, more efficient, services to customers.
They have also taken swift action to ensure businesses and residents in the North East benefit from the new register at the earliest opportunity. NWG, Northern Powergrid and Northern Gas Networks have trail-blazed to complete all steps in the onboarding processes, making North East England the first region to have all their major gas, water and electricity providers onboard, ready for their data to be used via NUAR, all well ahead of schedule.
Thames Water in London also helped demonstrate the feasibility and value of a new register and the need to put one in place at the earliest opportunity. It first did this through a proof of concept it conducted with other utilities in the area where it trialled bringing subsurface data together at select locations in London. Having completed this work, it elicited the help and support of the Greater London Authority, which has since led work to gather, refine and test requirements across the many sectors that work to service the capital.
In particular, organisations such as Thames Water, UK Power Networks, Southern Gas Networks (SGN), Cadent, Southern Electricity Networks (SSEN), GTC (BUUK) and others worked with owners of underground assets in North East England not only to identify requirements but also to help consider the unique needs of asset owners working in more urban, built up areas. Working collaboratively in this manner has helped ensure the register is fit for purpose across all regions and this collaboration is stronger than ever via our focused user groups.
In addition to all the local authorities, utilities in Wales have been active in ensuring the new register comes to fruition at the earliest opportunity. In particular, SP Manweb and SP Energy Networks, subsidiaries of Scottish Power, were keen to understand the platform’s ability to register not just underground assets but also overground assets which, when on site, need as much consideration as assets beneath the surface. Armed with the knowledge that the register will allow asset owners, like Scottish Power, to display their essential overground infrastructure, they were able to move quickly to ensure they are positioned to go live, in Wales, come April 2023. Wales & West Utilities, Broadband for the Rural North, National Grid (South Wales) and Welsh Government are also leading the way to improve worker safety by being among the first to sign up.
Telecommunication providers have also taken immediate action to promote improvements in this area. These organisations have shown their commitment to improved processes and worker safety through the better use of data whilst also recognising some data is sensitive and must be safeguarded. Openreach, in particular, worked directly with the Geospatial Commission to identify and refine security requirements which would need to be in place to ensure workers have access to the data they need to carry out their duties effectively without compromising the security of sensitive sites or assets. Virgin Media also helped refine the legal data-sharing framework, ensuring it is fair to all parties involved. More than 20 other telecommunications organisations have signed data-sharing agreements, demonstrating their commitment to NUAR and the suitability of the legal framework documents.
Though it is not possible to describe the contributions of each of the hundreds of organisations that have demonstrated a tangible commitment to NUAR, through sharing data and/or entering legal data-sharing agreements, it is clear there is a growing step change in how data is valued and shared, and there’s a recognition that now is the time to act. While the National Underground Asset Register is a first step in recognising this, it is hard to overstate what the future may hold with so many utilities, telecoms, and public sector bodies working together, leading, and acting for the benefit of their customers and local communities.
NUAR will go live in three regions: North East England, Wales and London in March 2023. In the same transparent manner the NUAR team has engaged the asset owner community to date, the service will increase coverage and functionality until December 2024 when the rest of England and Northern Ireland will be onboarded.
We are engaging with asset owners from all regions now. If you’re an asset owner that has not yet signed up to the National Underground Asset Register, please contact the delivery team: