Why the DfT’s approach to flexi permits must stay true to its principals and follow the evidence
Utilities are delivering the next generation of infrastructure.
Utilities underpin the essential requirements of our daily lives; warm, light, connected homes with clean fresh water. This critical sector is now delivering significant upgrades to this infrastructure that helps realise the future we all want. Better, faster broadband connections for our online world, a network that supports new low and zero carbon vehicles, and changing the way we heat our homes and deliver precious water to be environmentally sustainable.
Making these infrastructure improvements happen is a tall order. It requires a huge volume of permit requests, administration and requirements for utility workers to manage. This becomes an even taller order when utilities are not working hole to hole – as the current maintenance focused regime encourages – and instead trying to deliver programmes town or city wide.
This is why Street Works UK strongly supports the principles of flexi permits, and will always work with the Department for Transport (DfT) to ensure the best possible outcome. Flexi permits, building on the strong spirit of collaboration fostered in the midst of the pandemic, can become a vital tool to help overcome this challenge. They can make it easier to deliver important infrastructure on a larger scale while still allowing local authorities to play a key oversight role.
Instead of taking a hole to hole approach – it zooms out and looks at a community, a town or part of a city and allows utilities and local authorities to plan a suite of works. We have already seen through trials the benefits it can deliver for major communities like Sheffield, with no loss of control for local authorities to avoid congestion for road users.
It is for this reason we are deeply concerned that flexi permits are at clear risk of straying from the principles that are welcomed by utilities and many local authorities. Evidence provided by successful trials have shown that when flexi permits are not overly limited in scope, they help to deliver works over a larger area, reducing the level of bureaucracy needed for wide-scale infrastructure improvement plans. In a recent short, technical consultation from the DfT we were therefore surprised to see proposals that put barrier after barrier in the way of utilities using this tool to deliver large scale works.
We recognise that some will be hesitant to relinquish control of each individual work for fear of the impact it will have on communities. That is why it will remain essential for utilities and local authorities to build on the spirit of collaboration that emerged in the pandemic and find ways to work together in the interest of residents and infrastructure delivery that ultimately benefits them. A clear and joint understanding that encourages focus on our common goal is essential.
But a constrained flexi permit proposal will not truly deliver the infrastructure ambitions of the UK. Most utilities will not see any clear scope to use them for the large investment programmes they are planning, and will be forced to plan piece by piece. Not only will this slow down planning and work delivery, thereby increasing costs, it will also flood local authorities with work permits to manage and oversee. I struggle to see how this is in the interest of any party.
We are pleased that the DfT continues to keep an open mind on how to take forward flexi permits. A solution can be achieved that provides the protections and assurances local authorities need and that harness the investment and ambition of utilities to deliver broadband, electric vehicle and new green utility infrastructure. To find it though, we will need to work together and not accept the status quo.
Written be Clive Bairsto, CEO, Street Works UK