It’s been two years since the Department for Transport (DfT) fired the starting gun on the roll-out of new lane-rental schemes across England and Wales. The new schemes give local authorities powers to charge utility companies significant sums of up to £2,500 per day for carrying out street works on busy roads at peak times.
Let’s face it, congestion is a problem in many of our towns and cities, and traffic norms will likely slide back to their previous levels as lockdown restrictions ease. The street works sector has an important responsibility to help ease this problem by carrying out work outside peak hours wherever possible and already does so in most cases.
Street Works UK’s members are strongly committed to working with partners in highways authorities to ensure critical works are delivered effectively and efficiently with minimum disruption to road users and pedestrians. Some works can be scheduled around off-peak hours, but not always. Pipes burst unexpectedly, electrics develop breaks, and fibre connections get interrupted – even with the very best intentions and care in placement and reinstatement. We believe the further increase in restrictions to utility companies through the Lane Rental schemes will have a limited impact on congestion, given existing good practice in the sector to carry out works as non-intrusively as possible.
Although the DFT has issued guidance around Lane Rental schemes, it’s up to individual local authorities to consult and implement their own schemes. As the schemes begin to rollout, some local schemes have, frankly, strayed from what one would imagine –and each of us as tax-payers might hope –as being the Government’s original purpose for Lane rental; an intent to remove and reduce traffic congestion.
Some authorities have decided to apply Lane Rental charges to public footpaths. Works on footpaths are explicitly excluded from the application of Lane Rental charges in the DfT’s guidance, except where a footpath closure requires the provision of a safe route for pedestrians which impacts a carriageway directly. We believe that potential scope creep of Lane Rental schemes around footpaths will lead to escalating costs for utilities and ultimately impact customers without reducing congestion one iota.
As initial schemes take shape, there is a crucial opportunity to set the right tone for Lane Rental and step back from the brink of potentially cumbersome and inconsistent approaches across local authorities that harms road users -as well as the Government’s own wider goals around infrastructure build and key utilities’ delivery.
Many will know that in the coming months and years, street works will be a vital enabler of the Government’s priorities around economic recovery, levelling up, and transitioning to net-zero. Infrastructure projects to help future-proof the UK economy, such as super-fast broadband and upgrades to the electricity networks to allow for increased electric car usage, will all require street works. That is because these pipes and wires mostly run quietly under our nation’s roads in a complex web of hidden connectivity.
As a result, poorly thought out Lane Rental schemes will add costs, skew well-thought-through plans, and obstruct in such a way that they could be a significant drag on upgrading Britain’s towns and cities, slowing down progress and adding additional unnecessary cost burdens.
DfT guidance must inform the roll-out of Lane Rental schemes in different areas. For example, local authorities should particularly ensure their schemes do not cover more than 5% of their road network focused on the most traffic sensitive roads as per the guidance-and backed up by clear data.
Rather than imposing arbitrary charges through poorly executed Lane Rental schemes, we believe the street works sector can work in tandem with local authorities to realise our shared ambition of upgrading essential infrastructure. Doing this via consistent schemes that do not demand further training on a multitude of different schemes will help the workforce to deliver quality build and repairs to infrastructure at pace.
In November 2020, Street Works UK launched a shared Vision for Street and Road Works with local authorities, consisting of key goals around digitalisation, collaboration and innovation.
Drawing on this vision, utilities and local authorities can seamlessly work together to deliver public benefits which realise the UK’s full potential by drawing on innovative practice and embracing greater digitalisation but not be hamstrung by schemes that add obfuscation with no benefit to decongestion. Ensuring fairness and consistency in new Lane Rental schemes are both an important part of this puzzle, and we will continue to advocate for our members and the local communities we support through our work deploying and upgrading essential infrastructure.
Written by Clive Bairsto, Chief Executive of Street Works UK