Utility companies – gas, water, electricity and so on – dig up our roads with monotonous regularity. In 2015, around 100,000 separate utility roadworks were counted on the Scottish Roadworks Register. That’s 100,000 times our roads and pavements were dug up and, in most cases, “reinstated” (industry jargon for putting them back).
We all know the frustrations this causes; delays to drivers and bus passengers, pavements impassable to older and disabled people, and ultimately the road resurfaced but often, it seems, not quite to the same standard that it was before.
The public are fed up with how often the roads are dug up, the time they waste in traffic, and the deterioration in our roads that seems to result, and the utilities industry’s own public opinion surveys show that people feel strongly that the companies are not doing enough to minimise the disruption that their works cause.
At present in Scotland, local councils have some powers to control roadworks. They can fine utility companies £120 if they don’t give proper notice of their planned work, but they don’t give those companies permission to go into the road – that is these companies’ legal right. Some other powers can only be pursued through the criminal courts, and so, basically, they are not used. Perhaps most seriously, there are no penalties for poor quality work – the worst that can happen is that the utility company has to pay for a test and mend the road again if it fails.
Does it have to be like this? Other countries have different powers and practices. For example, in many US states it is typical for councils to take money from utility companies to pay for reinstatements if they are not done well. In Canada, most utility work is done by tunneling, not by digging trenches in the road. And in England, newer law not introduced in Scotland means that companies do not have an automatic right to go into the road. They must get permission from the local council and in two council areas they must also pay to occupy busy roads – so called “lane rental”, paying up to £2,500 per day on the busiest roads. They can also be fined up to £5,000 per day if their works overrun a pre-agreed deadline.
Research carried out by the Transport Research Institute at Edinburgh Napier University shows that the new powers on permitting and lane rental cut the numbers of days that utilities occupied the roads, and reduced delays whilst the roadworks were in place. Utilities also carried out more work outwith normal working hours. The savings in travel time far outweighed the additional costs to the utility companies.
So how is the Scottish Government dealing with this situation? In 2015 the then Transport Minister, Derek Mackay, asked the office of the Scottish Roadworks Commissioner – an organisation that monitors and coordinates roadworks across Scotland – to carry out a review of its powers. After a consultation to which only three utility companies responded, the published review did not recommend permit or lane rental schemes, citing Scotland’s utility companies’generally better record at giving notice of their planned works than their counterparts in England – although perhaps ignoring the fact that English authorities can now put conditions on how and when companies dig the roads, which Scottish councils cannot.
It did recommend an increase in the guarantee period for reinstated roadworks from two to six years, and giving local authorities the power to levy £120 fines to cover failed reinstatements, both of which should cut the number of crumbling collapsing ruts and trenches that we see in our roads.
The government, in its response to the report, accepts most recommendations – but suggests that the £120 fines should only be levied on failures identified during the period when the road is dug up. So if we’re lucky and the new law required is passed, we might see some improvement in the quality of what is put back after these companies dig up the road.
But is that really enough? Delays from roadworks have been estimated to cost the UK economy as much as £4.3 billion per year, and other research shows that one excavation after another weakens the road and its surface, worsening our roads maintenance backlog (although, perhaps unsurprisingly, the utility companies dispute this).
Other countries have shown that stricter controls on what utilities do in our roads, and when, can cut these costs.
Scotland may have the best register of roadworks in the UK, but knowing precisely what is being dug up and where is cold comfort to the millions of travellers whose journeys are disrupted every year. Why do we have to take the softly softly approach?
Professor Tom Rye, Director of the Transport Research Institute at Edinburgh Napier University