Firms face £2,500-a-day fines for digging up roads at peak times

UTILITY companies could be charged £2,500 a day to dig up busy roads if they insist on working at peak times.

Three areas will trial “lane rental” schemes aimed at incentivising firms to carry out work more quickly or when roads are quieter to ease congestion in towns and cities across the region.

But councils have questioned why the Government needs to trial the idea and have called on Ministers to allow them to introduce the schemes wherever necessary amid frustration that existing measures have failed to prevent motorists being stuck in gridlock. Wakefield Council leader Peter Box, chairman of the LGA’s Economy and Transport Board, said: “Councils have long called for the power to introduce lane rental schemes to ease roadwork congestion for motorists during rush-hour.

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“This announcement from the Department for Transport is a step in the right direction. However, we feel that trialling the initiative first is unnecessary.

“This is a good idea and any frustrated motorist who has had to spend wasted hours held up in miles of tailbacks would agree that the sooner councils are allowed to get on top of this problem the better.” Under the schemes, councils would be able to charge utility firms such as gas and water suppliers up to £2,500 a day to dig up the busiest roads during peak times, which is when road works cause the most disruption. Companies would be able to avoid the charges by carrying out works at quieter times or at night.

The aim is to provide an incentive for firms to carry out work at quieter times, or if they have to do it at busy times to do so quickly.

Transport Minister Norman Baker said: “It is incredibly frustrating to find vital roads being dug up in the middle of the rush hour or, even worse, traffic lanes closed when no one is even carrying out any work.

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“This disruption is not only inconvenient but very expensive, with roadworks-related congestion costing the economy an estimated £4bn a year, which is why we are taking firm action.

“While permit schemes reducing disruption from roadworks in areas where they have been sanctioned we think it sensible to try out a further option.

“We believe lane rental schemes provide a further incentive to utility companies and local authorities to carry out their works at times when they will cause the minimum disruption and to complete them as quickly as possible.” The Government is inviting applications from authorities wishing to trial the schemes, but areas will have to prove existing measures have failed to tackle problems.

The charges may only be targeted on streets where roadworks cause the greatest disruption, and any money raised will have to be put back into measures to reduce disruption from roadworks.

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But Labour has accused the Government of watering down the policy and said companies who persistently cause delays should be fined far more.

Shadow Transport Secretary Maria Eagle said: “Out-of-touch ministers have caved in to utility companies who make road users’ lives a misery, with this watered-down lane rental policy.

“The Tory-led Government’s proposals are so limited in their scope that they will only apply to a very small proportion of roads.

“By setting the maximum daily rental charge at £2,500 – the same level as the current maximum fine for over-running roadworks – ministers are not providing any real incentive for disruptive roadworks to be speeded up.

“This is a missed opportunity to really tackle the congestion and delay caused by over-running roadworks.”