WESTMINSTER Report by Rt Hon Mark Francois MP for Rayleigh and Wickford
Roads Minister endorses ‘Can the Cones’ Campaign.
At the end of last year, I introduced a Ten-Minute Rule Bill (TMRB) in the House of Commons, entitled the Roadworks (Regulation) Bill.
This new Bill is intended to try and tighten up on where, when, and why people can dig up the Highway Network, causing delays to motorists in the process.
As the name suggests, a TMRB entitles the MP proposing the Bill to a speech, lasting up to ten minutes, to outline their case for why a new law is required. During my speech in the Commons, I described how 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!
Thus, the Bill essentially has three key aims to help try and tackle the curse of prolonged and over-running roadworks head-on.
Firstly, it will give local highways authorities much stronger powers to control the granting of permits to anyone who wants to dig up the highway network.
At present, 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” then the ability of the authority to refuse them is even weaker still.
The Bill would thus 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 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 coordinate roadworks to minimise disruption to road users. Alongside this, it states that “local authorities shall use their best endeavours to coordinate the execution of works of all kinds.” Yet, the ‘ground truth’, i.e., what really goes on in practice, rather than just in abstract policy, is that some local authorities are clearly not following these requirements.
As many readers will know, a few years ago, we saw exactly this in 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. This Bill would therefore seek to prevent exactly these sorts of scenarios, by trying to ensure a much more ‘joined-up approach’ by imposing much stricter procedures on highways authorities who give out the permits – and would also seek to prevent the same stretch of road being dug up multiple times, in short succession, by different companies.
Thirdly, the Bill would materially increase the fines for roadworks which overrun. At present, local highways authorities have the power to fine utility companies for “unreasonably prolonged occupation of the highway.” The current Regulations 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 those streets that fall outside of this tightly defined category, the fines fall away dramatically.
Crucially, these fines have not been updated or adjusted for inflation since 2012. These are hardly likely to be a deterrent to major utility companies or housing developers, some of whom just accept the fines, on the rare occasions they are actually levied, as a cost of doing business.
This Bill would significantly increase the penalties for over-running beyond the schedule agreed when the permit was first granted – and persistent offenders could be fined up to 10% of their annual turnover; which should make even the most tin-earned company sit up and listen.
Subsequent to its first reading in Parliament, I recently had an extremely positive meeting with the Roads Minister, Richard Holden MP.
During this meeting, in which I was also strongly supported by my Parliamentary colleagues, Anna Firth, MP and Vicky Ford MP as well as Essex County Councillor, Andrew Sheldon, the Minister officially endorsed the ‘Can the Cones’ Campaign, saying: “Mark Francois has hit the nail on the head with his campaign to ‘Can the Cones’.
“Delays to road works and the disruption it causes is unacceptable. I welcome the proposals contained in Mark’s Roadworks Bill to increase fines on road works that run over time and for greater cooperation between authorities.
“Following my meeting with Mark Francois, Anna Firth and Vicky Ford, I am going to examine the proposals in detail to see what can be done using existing powers and will write to them.”
Realistically, my Roadworks (Regulation) Bill is unlikely to make it onto the Statute Book (for lack of Parliamentary time). Nevertheless, I am trying to persuade DfT Ministers to adopt some of the ideas it contains, in order to speed up roadworks and increase the fines for companies that overrun their allocated time to complete the job, thus causing a lot more disruption than is strictly necessary.
I know from the emails I receive and going out canvassing that my Rayleigh and Wickford constituents are heartily sick and tired of the amount of roadworks they have had to endure in recent years.
There is also some sense of urgency about this, as Cityfibre UK are due to start digging up the roads in our constituency this spring, as part of their plan to lay Megabit capable broadband across the area.
I suspect my constituents will eventually welcome the much faster internet connectivity, but not the potential disruption, while it is being installed. I will continue to press Ministers for at least some progress on the subject of roadworks, not just locally but hopefully further afield as well.
Finally, on the subject of roads, I am also making strong representations to Essex County Council Highways about the increasing number of potholes across the constituency and indeed across the County.
The Government have recently given Essex County Council an extra £5 million to address this problem, but I would like to see it spent as effectively as possible.
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