For utilities to deliver the scale of infrastructure enhancement necessary to drive up productivity and create economic growth at a national level, street works are essential. While all utilities recognise that work in the street can be frustrating for the public, as an industry we are fully committed to minimising occupation of the road, reducing disruption for road users, and communicating better the benefits which the works are delivering.
But the Department for Transport’s recent announcement that they intend to expand lane rental schemes across the country, charging utilities and their contractor partners up to £2,500 a day to access the highway in some areas and at certain times, will do little to reduce congestion and will make it harder and more expensive for utilities to deliver vital infrastructure.
Lane rental does not provide any tools that do not already exist. It is an additional unnecessary instrument which makes it harder and more expensive to deliver desperately needed infrastructure, while failing to address the main sources of disruption. Local authorities already have the powers – and indeed the duty – to manage and co-ordinate street works through permit and noticing schemes, but the quality of their performance in this regard varies widely across the country. The government’s own analysis, carried out by independent consultants, of the two pilot schemes in London and Kent found no causal evidence that lane rental schemes reduce congestion.
The priority should be on ensuring that existing schemes and policies work as effectively as possible, eradicating the vast range of variance which has been allowed within the existing permit schemes. This would reduce the cost overhead, provide a consistent approach and enable clear accountability and performance comparison. Street Works UK would like to see a streamlined set of no more than half a dozen schemes which can be used nationally. Collaboration with highways authorities will remain essential.
While we do not believe lane rental is the best solution, we will continue to work closely with the government as they develop guidance for local authorities on how they can apply to set up a lane rental scheme. We want to ensure the proposals are implemented in a manner that is built on a minimum number of well run effective permit schemes, which reduces complexity, recognises the need for consistency, and is only used as a targeted, proportionate intervention.
It is key that schemes must fulfil a number of conditions before being approved by the Secretary of State. It will be critical for the industry to shape these criteria and ensure that they are robust enough.
There must be strong governance in place where schemes are established. This will require the Department for Transport to take an active role in monitoring how schemes are operating and whether they are having the benefits predicted. Yearly reviews of the scheme must have evidence and transparency at their heart, and must fully involve utilities. It is essential that they do not become a ‘box ticking’ exercise or as in the case of permits, responsibility is devolved and essential principles become blurred.
It is welcome to see the government recognise that lane rental schemes must support the delivery of national infrastructure projects, such as broadband. The most effective way to guarantee this would be a clear commitment in the detailed guidance that there will be an exemption from lane rental charges for such projects.
The sector is currently engaged in delivering the largest programme of works this country has seen for a generation as well as undertaking vital work to upgrade and maintain existing infrastructure. Broadband delivery, the electric vehicle charging infrastructure rollout, a mass house building programme: these are key government priorities. The Department for Transport’s agenda must encourage and support this vision, not make it harder for utilities and their contractor partners to achieve it. We’re looking forward to working with government to achieve our shared objectives.