Lane rental as a way of sorting out roadworks

You think it’s bad out there, eh? You think the roads are hell? Well, all I can say is, just you wait until the thaw. Just wait until the water bursts from those pipes and suddenly the roads will be sprouting orange cones like the crocuses of spring.

No sooner has the snow retreated and the ground defrosted than the landscape will once again be full of men with hi-vis jackets and pneumatic drills, following the ancient British procedure. First they cordon off a stretch of the road. Then they dig a hole. Then they brew a nice cup of tea and contemplate the hole. Then they simply vanish, like the Mayans, leaving the rest of us to wonder what they meant by these baffling excavations, and leaving thousands of road-users to queue in a mounting frenzy of frustration.

I don’t mean just the water companies. I mean the gas, the electricity, the broadband suppliers and all the other umpteen bodies with unlimited rights to dig holes in the public highway and plunge the system into chaos.

We have become one of the most roadwork-afflicted nations in the world, and it is a source of serious economic inefficiency. These endless craters are eroding our air quality with the fumes of stalled traffic. Roadworks are not only driving motorists nuts: they are bad for bus passengers, too, and they are a drain on the finances of public transport, since the delays mean we have to lay on more buses to be sure of a decent service.

Boris expands:  “With 36 per cent of London traffic delays caused by roadworks – the total cost to London business is not far short of £1 billion, and I am afraid to say it all goes back to Mrs Thatcher. She it was who created the privatised utilities. With Michael Heseltine, she decided — entirely reasonably — that these new concerns should be given every possible help in maximising efficiency and delivering services to their customers. So they were given quite amazing powers to dig up the road.

As a policy, that might have been sensible in the Eighties, when there were only two or three privatised utilities. It looks utterly crazy today, when there are 100 entities that can dig up the Queen’s highway without warning and without so much as a by-your-leave. They have no incentive to get it done fast, and they often put it back in any old condition, with a deceptive patch of tarmac to conceal the rubble beneath.

The whole system is a disgrace, and that is why London is now pioneering the first partial remedy. Together with 16 boroughs, we are launching a permit scheme, so that these companies will have to apply for a time-limited permit to do their work and face tough-ish fines if they overrun.

We hope the permit system will speed up the work on the 300,000 holes dug every year in London’s streets, and it is good as far as it goes. But it is nothing like enough. You will see the flaw. Suppose you have a two-week job and you want to make sure your diggers get it done without incurring any fines. What do you do? You apply for a four-week permit, don’t you? That means your boys can have a full fortnight of making tea and staring at the hole — or rather, they can have a full fortnight in which they go off and do a different job, leaving the hole untended and the drivers bending their steering wheels in frustration.

There is only one serious solution, and that is lane rental. The only way to make the road-excavators understand the full economic cost of their activities is to charge them for the time they spend digging up the road. If they are to deliver the roadworks in a timely and efficient manner, they must feel the cost of delay in their own pockets. That is how we will get new technology in roadworks — the equivalent of the keyhole surgeries and the angioplasties that will allow companies to fix things below the tarmac with minimal disruption.

That is how we will encourage the utilities to keep the traffic moving — either by working round the clock, as they do in Singapore, or plating over the holes as they do in New York. That is how we will get them at last to co-operate, so that they stop taking turns to dig up the same patch. The only way to solve our roadworks problem is if the meter starts running the minute the first cone appears or the first drill bites into tarmac; and to be fair to Transport Secretary Lord Adonis, he is the first holder of his office to understand that and to see what needs to be done.

Alas, he is facing a determined foe. The utilities companies are well-organised, with a slick lobbying group called the National Joint Utilities Group. They have plenty of people who are capable of putting their point of view, in both Houses of Parliament. They hold agreeable soirées at which they will denounce lane rental. They will claim that it will lead to unintended consequences. They will whisper in ministers’ ears that disadvantaged communities will be deprived of broadband and that little old ladies will face hikes in the cost of gas and electricity to pay for lane rental.

Ministers should tell them to put a sock in it. We all know the privatised utilities — bosses and shareholders — have done very well in the past two decades. Lackadaisical roadworks are becoming a threat to national competitiveness, and it is time we did something about it.

David Cameron yesterday announced some excellent measures to help the wealth creators of this country, the small businesses who are the backbone of the economy. He is quite right. It is business — not the state — that will lead us out of recession. I believe lane rental, as a means of sorting out roadworks, is a policy that will receive a full-throated roar of assent from anyone trying to run a business in London or anywhere else.”

44 thoughts on “Lane rental as a way of sorting out roadworks”

  1. Yes, go on, have a go at one of the few groups of people who actually contribute to our well being by digging through frozen muck to repair our utility supplies. You great oaf, Johnson. Sod off and do something useful yourself.

  2. Er, remind me again. This is a “1st World” country is it not? I would also, respectfully, ask all your readers to spare a thought for my little brass cousins in their hour of difficulty. Yours, in a thermal vest……

  3. A veiled criticism of our revered M Thatcher? Surely, not – even though it refers to the 80s. Why not develop a new reinforced galvanised indestructible tarmac – and insist on middle of the night working hours?

  4. Johnson described the system that allows different utility companies to dig up roads “without warning and without so much as a by your leave” as a “disgrace”.

    He wrote: “I am afraid it all goes back to Mrs Thatcher.”

    Of course it does. As does the running down of the trains and expectation that everybody should have a car.

    She was too feeble to realise that the demand for road-space by motorists is virtually limitless, and impinges on other freedoms.

  5. I’m not sucking Mr Johnson but I agree with his idea of lane/ road rental- any companies/ firms who want to dig up a hole in a road to do their own work must pay a fee to local council for the duration their work takes.

    If they don’t want to pay too much rental fee, they will have to speed up their work.

    Unnecessarily prolonged roadworks are a nuisance, even on a small backstreet in your neighbourhood. Make the bastards work harder and faster- don’t let them just stand there drinking endless cups of tea/ smoking/ chatting/ fooling around/ swearing/ talking on their flash mobile phones. Look at the German, the way they work and learn.

  6. I completely agree with Boris that the utility companies should be required to pay for a permit to dig up the road and they should be fined if they go over their agreed permit time. They should also be made to work 24 hours a day if they are digging up a main thoroughfare.

    Today the commute from Barnes to Askew Rd w12 took me one and a half hours. This was purely because of roadworks and temporary traffic lights causing massive tailbacks. One on the Mortlake Road before Chiswick bridge and then at the roundabouts of Paddenswick Rd and Askew Road. I might add that noone was working on either of these sites and I understand these works could be ongoing for over three months.

    Something has to be done for the people that live in London and it needs to be done sooner rather than later. It is getting impossible to get around. The buses are no better as they are still hampered by the roadworks. Walking is an option but try walking all that way with a five year old.

    Please, please try to work this problem out

  7. @Vicus Scurra: I cannot believe how rude you are. You obviously do not live in London or use a car or public transport or you would not have made that comment. Anything that keeps the traffic moving in rush hour has to be considered.

  8. Hi,
    if such measure takes place, private companies will do it just in any other business with a budget… Do it fast and wrong, hence ending up doing it twice for twice the price. Am I right? This will not work.

  9. I thought that the utilities already had to apply for local authority permission before digging up the road, but that they finagled this by claiming that every excavation was an emergency and therefore exempt from this requirement. If this is so, perhaps the answer is to enforce the existing law rather than demanding new laws?

    It might also help if there was somebody, somewhere with a statutory responsbility to keep traffic moving.

  10. This is a very sensible, intelligent article. Unfortunately, I don’t like those sort of articles very much. I like it when Boris is funny and goofs around. Of course, you can’t goof around all the time, when you are Mayor, also probably I am frivolous and shallow.

  11. Had it been our British builders contracted to build the Berlin Wall, by the time they finished their work there would have been no locals left in East Berlin.

    Road diggers’ hairy bum cracks are a very tempting sight, I mean a very condemnatory sight. After 6 or 8 weeks long staring at their hairy bum cracks moving up and down mending a small hole in the neighbourhood road yet one can’t do anything about it, of course one tends to go mental.

    Unnecessarily prolonged road works are therefore a torture for some.

  12. Well said Boris.
    May I suggest that you look at the us system where all utilities are in conduits along side the road ways so that traffic is not interupted when repairs are required.
    I understand that this cannot be retrospective but as they build new estates and bissiness parks they should be included in the plans.
    Why can the work not be done at night like they do in Dorset?
    They resurface the whole of the A31 overnight and traffic was not effected during the day except for the occassional lane change.
    Kepp up the good work and if you stand for PM I and most of my mates would vote for you.

  13. Conduits: the only long-term solution.

    Lineal increase in volumes of cable undermine solutions we find today for road works. Eventually, an hundred companies will have an hundred permits to dig up an hundred roads – lane rentals or not.

    Invest today.
    Solve tomorrow’s problem.

    Clearly not the solution for all areas of London but definitely a solution for large areas.

  14. Any attermpt to sort this one out is to be welcomed. The road outside Monument Station is a government sponsored excavation workshop. All contractors get a chance to lay something and cover it up, but book early to avoid disappointment. For variety Scaffolders can join in too.

  15. We’ve all put up with this crap for years. Conventional politicians have never shown any interest whatsoever in doing anything about it.
    I care about this – it affects me!
    I couldn’t care less about expenses, climate change bores me to tears…this actually matters! If yr idea works, my life would be better! Isn’t that what politicians are for?


  16. @m naylor. You should see what I say off line if you think that that is rude.
    I am tired of pompous, pampered fools gaining cheap political points by criticising the few people in this country who do a useful job.

  17. However radical and nutty we may think Vicus appears – he really is worth scratching beneath the surface where you will find a cuddly soft being with a lot of commonsense and good humour!

  18. ( half asleep ) Yeah, yeah… whatever… a typical naive anti-West socialist who lives in comfort in the well-off West yet never wants to move East.

  19. Interesting that claredoo has got the most thumbs up on this thread.

    Perhaps regular contributors are a little bubble of people who like to have their own views reinforced.

  20. While Americans (obviously not all) believe the rest of the world is jealous of their SUV gas-guzzling bravado and the upper echelons of Western Europe still expect to own 3 or 4 properties each (despite housing shortages in urban areas) China and the emerging economies are told they are not supposed to have all the luxuries the West enjoy because their contribution tips the planet into an accumulated emergency – one that we will pretend can be fixed with stink bombs and paint-sopped sponges for now.

    This made me wonder once again how many properties Boris JOhnson has.

  21. Hahaha, Mel, “However radical and nutty we may think Vicus appears…..” Perfect! Praeteritio, Boris would be proud of you.

  22. @carter: why do you care how many properties Boris Johnson has? Do you pillory David Cameron too? The Duke of Westminster? Actors? Any other rich people?

    But, as a person can only live in one house at a time, and drive one car, it cannot be the emissions you object to per garage, so why mention China? Why mention gas and stink bombs? What exactly is your problem??

  23. @carter, everything Boris has is the result of his hard work and talent. You sound very envious.

  24. philipa asked: “Do you pillory David Cameron too?”

    Not as much. Cameron at least shows remorse and embarrassment about his silver spoon Eton / Bullingdon background. Boris Johnson never has, at least in public. I’ve never even heard him apologise for saying he would get Darius Guppy a journalist’s address, so Guppy could beat him up.

  25. Not as much. Cameron at least shows remorse and embarrassment about his silver spoon Eton / Bullingdon background. Boris Johnson never has

    @carter: there might be a reason for that. Boris earned a scholarship for both, just as you could, if you could.

    And I don’t think Cameron is at all genuinely remorseful or embarassed about his family. He might regret people going on about it all the time though.

  26. @Vicus Scurra:

    Of which you clearly are not a contributing member.

    This is a 100% golden idea as money is the only thing the utility companies understand. Utilities are financed using formula based charging that allows them to pass on capital costs direct to you and me, but revenue costs like lane rental would not be, so any costs like this would come straight off the profitability of the company. There was a goverment scheme in the late 90’s to address this very issue, of course the contractor never delivered a working system (DIGITAL Computers) and the whole thing was abandoned when Labour got in.

    If you go to Germany on the weekend when no one is working on a road they take the road works up.

    This has to make sense.

  27. Mel, agree with you 100% as I always do. We will be fighting shoulder to shoulder, (he is so lucky to have us!) (joke)

  28. The mayor has repeatedly warned that the taxes, notably the bonus tax, could “fast-track” the relocation of up to 9,000 high-earning bankers out of the City…”Add all these ill-thought-out policies together and London becomes a less attractive destination for the globe-trotting, highly-skilled businessmen”

    As opposed to well thought out policies such as encouraging more traffic into London by abolishing the Western Congestion Charge Zone? Of course, such a policy will certainly win Boris Johnson some wealthy and influential friends.

  29. Half of all road works are undertaken by Local Authorities. So when Boris says “36 per cent of London traffic delays are caused by roadworks” that is 18% due to utilities and 18% by the Boroughs. Equally, the total cost as a result of both is £500 million EACH. Utility works are heavily regulated from teh sound of things. Why are borough works also?

  30. @David: @Captn P:

    Utilities are regulated industries. Lne rental costs would be operationally incurred and as such would unfortunately be passed on to consumers (if I understand it correctly) 🙁

    I would like to see trials that prove the cost results be worth the cost

  31. Did someone mention gas emissions, stink bombs and global warming earlier? With the recent bad weather, I wonder if it has anything to do with people’ recession diet of mainly Tesco’s economy baked beans ( on toast )?

  32. Where is every body? Oh dear, stink bombs seem to have driven every body away!

    Talking about bombs, folks. Did you see, after that Patel had failed to blow that Detroit bound plane off on air, well tanned American President Morgan Freeman went on television to address the world, vowing to do anything in his power to hunt down the bastards, to protect American citizens blah, blah… Then American Home Front Security Woman Kathy Bates went on TV to declare that ” We don’t automatically put that person on our black list just because someone has warned us about that person. We don’t work like that! ” Yes, Sir!

    Oh, so Hollywood. Bloody hell, that country is sooooo Hollywood influenced that they act as if they were in a Hollywood film, say ” INDEPENDENCE DAY “, ” 2012 ” etc… That the whole world must watch them and not the other way round.

    Make no mistake- it’s impossible to prevent any Patels to carry hidden bombs onto a plane. Patels will get more clever. They will stuff themselves with Tesco’s economy baked beans before boarding. Then how can you stop them?

  33. Roadworks? hmm. i seem to recall hearing of these but have now come to the conclusion that they are an urban myth!
    We see the signs displaying hardworking silhouette men doin our tar paths a fine service. Yet i do not recall actually seeing these being caried out???

    We make our way to work or such like half an hour to spare just in case we encounter any strange amounts of traffic along the way or to allow for spontaneous shopping if we see a new deal in the high street on our journey, then we are met by every motorists best friend… the dreaded off- spring of the the traffic lights, which have not as of yet fully matured, standing a few foot tall these teenage taunters of the traffic let around two cars go from eachside of the roadworks at a time!

    Friends, voters, countrymen i hear your cries! The roads must be kept in good condition, there must be a system to do this and there is! There are workers by the hundreds, thousands even more, where are they i hear you cry, well they’re over at bob’s cafe having a cuppa!! Workers of the road do as you must keep our lanes in shape install your pipes at will,
    but please we would like to see you at work so we can dismiss the poor road elves who come during the night and carry out these works under cover of darkness when we are tucked up in bed! We also wouldnt mind if you were to carry out just one set of works upon a single road at a time, please we ask think of our poor side roads too, whom are riddled with more cavities than the teeth of a sweet obsessed toddler. Councils, boroughs we ask of you do not show predujice against our smaller roads and maybe allocate certain monies to these works throughout the year instead of using the last of the taxable years budget within the last month to look after our poor petrol pathways.
    If this can be done, if we all keep up our side of the deal the only lanes we will need to rent are the ones at the local bowling alleys! JDF

  34. Unspoken truth is that since Local Authorities had to relinquish their sole role as road manager/hand over to utilities responsibility for reinstatements etc., matters have turned on their head.Utilities say frankly they pay lip service to the matter; underneath, couldn’t give much of a fig – why? In part because individually and collectively they employ “specialist contractors” to take the flak of section notices from fines L.As’ may impose. Worse still, the large specialists tend to ringfence the income from utilities, then sub contract problems, in turn some of them may do the same; it’s all above board but leads to waterfall of approved contractors all hlding a slice of the cake except the last man doing the work. They only have to provide a 2 yr life and the cycle of failure can always be suitably obfuscated – why should they provide better and they’re working on a shoestring so only the cheapest products that will do the job can be used. It is in no-ones interests to provide a first time reinstatement that lasts longer – it would spoil the party. Local Authorities take differing views on the fines – income for some – a nuisance to others – depends on the local politics. One contractor recently said he couldn’t care what they do on fines it’ll all get passed back to the customer and if they can’t do that, then they’ll buy the silence of the Local Authority by renting the road at a much higher cost to keep them quiet and just pass on a much higher bill. The Utilities say at the end of the day we have shareholders and really not interested in Local Authority concerns, they can pick up the tab if they’re so bothered about it. The real folly of it all is that there are voidless compaction “biblical materials” manufactured today with a whole life in excess of 100 years re-usable repeatedly and contain recycled aggregates but the participants in the merry go round are for the most part determined not to go there. Who wants the everlasting light bulb when fleecing the customer produces enormous profits for all, hidden inside a smiling and nodding brigade of road menders and client companies who are all more interested in keeping the party going. The suppliers of temporary materials, noisy compaction equipment, plastic cone suppliers etc – why of course not – why? Because they too would all have to do more work to the wider network now failing – that’s what motorists want but it isn’t what everyone else at the party wants. Instead the holes in the road will increase and the road life reduce by up to 30%, but then so what, you’ll pay for that too!The entire system is bomb proof and we all pay for it with no right of redress because LA and Utilitie can all take their customers to prison if they object to paying – that’s UK democracy at work!

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