The end of roadwork hell?

is charging more the answer?It was after sitting in unmoving traffic last Sunday on my way to a family event, seeing vans pushing their way from lane to lane and gradually becoming more and more irate that I thought something needs to be done. When I emerged from the snails crawl only to see lane after lane of space coned off for invisible workmen to be sitting on invisible chairs watching the world go by I started ranting to the powers that be that when I ruled the world, something would definitely be done.

Well, turns out the powers that be were listening to me, as a new idea was thrown out to the masses today by Transport Secretary Philip Hammond. Essentially it enables Councils to levy additional daily costs on those who are digging up certain roads, such as utility companies. Fees of up to £2500 a day are being suggested as part of the 12 week consultation for those works which take place on main routes during peak times, which could add up to a fairly significant sum when spread over a borough, city or region of the country over the course of a year.

My initial reaction when hearing the news was positive; surely anything that can be done to limit the impact on road users would be great, and might just encourage companies to complete work far more quickly. It will also bring a little more money in for Councils to then reinvest in road improvement works themselves. On the surface it makes a lot of sense, but before too long a few questions started springing up.

To start with, what roads will this apply to and how will this decision be made? Main roads certainly would be included, but it’s often roadwork to secondary roads which can cause the most disruption as the ability to close off a single lane doesn’t exist on a single lane highway. And would the same fee apply to a 200m road as well as to a 20km section?

Then I got thinking about the reality of the situation. As one commentator on the Guardian site pointed out, utility companies are not charities set up to share the burden of providing facilities equitably to the public; they are big businesses whose role these days is to make a profit for their shareholders.

Every cost needs to be covered in one way or another through income generation, the simplest of which is to increase charges to service users. If this scheme adds a few million pounds onto annual costs, there is no way that cost is simply going to be absorbed and accepted as just another one of those things. Sooner rather than later an equivalent charge will be introduced to all our bills to offset the additional cost.

The additional cost will not only be in terms of cash either, at least for those who live near these roads. Unless strict restrictions are put in place around acceptable noise and disruption near each of these roadways, should nightime works take over I foresee an awful lot of sleepless nights ahead.

Councils are being advised that they should also consider charging themselves for disruption they impose on local residents, with any subsequent income also being put into the same road improvement scheme as income from the utility companies. Such a move actually doesn’t help cash strapped local authorities, many of whom are struggling to finance current road works as it is, so to have another fee added on simply pushes things the wrong way.  Might this result in Councils simply not undertaking additional work as the cost of either paying the additional charges or paying for night-time overtime will become prohibitive?

Whilst digging up roads over long periods of time is certainly a major problem and headache for drivers, from the looks of things this plan doesn’t really do more than put a new surface over cracked work. Making a company pay to do something quickly which then falls apart the first time there is a bit of a frost and which then falls upon the Council to repair does nothing other than add costs to our utility bills; perhaps an additional fee should be introduced to cover quality as well as timeliness. If companies were also recharged for pothole repairs perhaps they might think twice about cutting costs in terms of materials.

And if it really is speed that is being sought, perhaps a better response might be to charge companies for every hour that a road is undrivable. This would last from the moment a cone is laid through to the first tyres then passing over new tarmac. One of the oft-quoted comparisons is against how things are done ‘on the continent’, where roadworks are completed quickly and efficiently and without the road surface turning into a poor tarmac patchwork quilt. People don’t want to see coned off areas of emptiness; there is no real reason why 24 hour working cannot be made to happen for utility companies. Most people I would think would prefer to see a road shut for one day and night than for three or four days and only being worked on at night, which would have the added benefit of things simply being completed more quickly.

All of this is initial reaction to what is a well intentioned scheme, but it also seems a little bit simplistic. Perhaps a more thorough read and some discussions might change my mind, but I see this being a charge imposed by local authorities who are then accused of profiteering by local residents whilst they then have little to no control over the income generated, and utility companies having yet another reason to raise prices to cover yet another cost. I can’t see the addition of a few thousand pounds making any works significantly shorter, and expect to see overruns simply moving the work from day to night-time.

Perhaps the next time I’m stuck in traffic caused by non-existent roadworks I’ll have the time to work out a better idea.

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line

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