On the 2 June 2011 Norman Baker, Minister for Local and Regional Transport, gave a video speech to the Highway Authorities and Utilities Committee HAUC (UK) conference in Edinburgh in which he welcomed the range of non-regulatory solutions the street works sector is taking forward and encouraged HAUC members to share good practice, engage more fully with the public and to make the most of new technology and innovation.
Hello. I’m very sorry I can’t be with you at your conference today, but I wanted to contribute to the debate - so I am grateful to HAUC for giving me this chance to address you with the aid of video technology and at the same time fulfil part of my ministerial brief, namely that of alternatives to travel.
It is really good that the different parts of the UK are coming together to share and compare experiences about street works.
As you are only too aware, streetworks can be an extremely contentious and divisive issue. Although essential to the fundamental services on which we all depend, most of us have experienced the problems poorly managed works can cause, particularly in congested towns and cities.
The task we face is to balance the need for infrastructure repairs in an efficient manner, while at the same time minimising disruption to businesses and individual road users along with the impact on a local community as a whole.
It is now more than one year since the general election - and since the coalition government came together to tackle Britain’s debt crisis, we have made it clear that we need to cut waste, drive through greater efficiencies, improve returns on investment, and deliver more with less.
To that end, we made a commitment to reduce red tape and remove unnecessary burdens from business. And we set out our belief that regulation must be seen as a last resort, not an instrument of choice.
Each one of these priorities applies just as much to local councils and communities as it does to central government. Indeed, we believe that local communities and the councils they elect, not Whitehall bureaucrats, are best placed to devise local solutions. If decision-making is devolved and power dispersed, local problems, such as road congestion, can be more easily defined and solved. And the government’s role is to make sure that local communities have the right tools to do the job.
Now this is as true in the area of street works as it is in any other.
We are already taking action to ensure local authorities are able to tackle over-running street works more effectively. For example, we’re working to increase financial incentives for utilities to complete works on time.
We’ll also have legislation by December that enables local authorities to propose lane rental pilot schemes. We want to see a very small number of pathfinder schemes to assess their cost effectiveness and see if lane rental can usefully play a wider role.
Later today you’ll be discussing permit schemes and, as I set out in my recent letter to council leaders, I want to reiterate my support for the schemes in Kent, London and Northamptonshire.
Initial indications suggest these programmes are delivering real benefits, not only reducing the number of days’ occupancy, but crucially, also reducing the number of complaints from the public about street works. They are a tangible example of what can be done when utilities and authorities work together to tackle disruption.
I can confirm - after a year of coalition government - that co-operation and partnership working does throw up the odd challenge. But sometimes it is the only way to deliver a solution that benefits all.
To make it easier for permit schemes to be launched, we’re reducing the bureaucracy for local authorities. Firstly, I am proposing that we stop Whitehall interference by removing the ministerial role from the permit approval process by April 2012 and we’ll be consulting on this proposal shortly.
And where it makes sense, we want more creative thinking to find alternatives to regulation and so reduce the burden on local communities and authorities.
As you may know, the government is taking forward a scheme called ‘the Red Tape Challenge’. This gives the public an opportunity to tell us which regulations are not working or necessary. Roads regulations, including street works, are currently up for debate - you can find out more about this by going to the DfT website and YouTube channel - and I’m pleased to see that the streetworks sector is already contributing to the process.
In general I welcome the range of non-regulatory solutions the sector is taking forward and would encourage everyone to make the most of them. Working together on good practice, taking forward the NUAG project to improve information sharing and rolling out the HAUC UK national code of conduct are all excellent initiatives - and I wish them every success. The more the sector can show its ability and desire to work together to deliver better outcomes for the public, the less need for government to step in and regulate.
An initiative that I’m particularly keen to see succeed is work to monitor performance across the sector. With utilities and highway authorities benchmarking their performance against others in the sector, the issue of underperformance can more effectively be addressed. Performance data published by the Scottish Road Works Commissioner, John Gooday, has played a useful role in Scotland and we hope the work of HAUC in England will prove similarly helpful.
Along with the tools we’re giving to local authorities, I’d also like to encourage a more common-sense approach. Rules should be applied with caution so as not to stifle innovation or create perverse outcomes.
An example that comes to mind relates to safety at street works sites. We all want to have safe, accessible roads and working environments, but traffic flow also needs to be managed competently and a balance struck on issues such as minimum footway widths. Instead of a blanket approach I would expect local authorities to come to a sensible decision about individual sites, taking into account their local knowledge and expertise.
I’m also very keen to see the sector make the most of new technology and innovation. To support this, last month, along with Transport for London, we announced research and development funding for new technology to reduce the disruption caused by street works. The 18-month project being undertaken by the Transport Research Laboratory will examine innovative engineering techniques that might allow works to be carried out at quieter times and roads to be reopened during peak traffic periods to reduce delays and disruption.
Better engagement with the public is also high on my agenda and I’m pleased that HAUC has decided to share good practice in the area of communications. All too often we have a situation where authorities and utilities know what is going on, but ordinary members of the public do not. A classic example is where street works sites are left empty. There can be good reasons for this, such as allowing time for concrete to cure, but all the general public sees is a street works site blocking their road and nobody working on it.
Failing to give people simple details about a works scheme is not only discourteous - it’s actually unprofessional, and can generate a lot of time-consuming complaints. In contrast, good information buys a lot of goodwill, and I hope that all parties will take up the challenge of doing more in this area going forwards.
Apologies once again for being unable to attend today, but thank you for watching, and I wish you a very productive conference.