Local authorities, utility companies and bill payers could all face extra costs under a government plan to penalise road works that aren’t cleared before the weekend, officials have conceded.
The Department for Transport (DfT) first suggested the reforms for local A roads in January and has now released a consultation on more fully developed plans, which could see councils and utility companies fined for not clearing works before the weekend or for leaving temporary traffic lights in place when the work is done.
The Local Government Association (LGA) has already criticised the plans and called for other options to be considered, including an expansion of London's lane rental scheme where contractors pay for the time they occupy busy roads and are therefore incentivised to get the job done properly and on time.
In the consultation document, DfT officials state: ‘Our plan is to... legislate to require local authorities to impose charges for failure to comply with the following requirements:
- A) where works are being carried out on local authority 'A' roads, they should either be removed during weekends to allow traffic to proceed unhindered, OR work should be continued throughout Saturday and Sunday (day-times);
- B) when works on local 'A' roads have been finished, temporary traffic lights (portable traffic signals) should either be removed immediately, OR if the road reinstatement requires time to set / cure before being suitable for traffic, they should be left in place only for as long as necessary (this requirement to apply even if the works are within the agreed duration).
The same charge would apply to both utilities' and local authorities' own works and councils would not be able to apply charges in relation to both infringements for the same event.
The document adds that: ‘Maximum charges would be set at a level to prompt a change in behaviour and to reflect the cost of the congestion caused, along the lines of current 'over-run' charges and based on technical reinstatement categories for returning the road to public use.’
There is an existing penalty of £5,000 per day for delayed road works, however these 'over-run' charges do not apply to councils.
An impact assessment of the costs involved in the plans reveals that all parties could be affected financially by the changes, regardless of fines, as labour and material costs increase significantly at the weekend. Alternatively time would be lost clearing the site before the weekend, which in turn would lead to the road works taking longer.
'It is also likely that there will be costs for the co-ordination role carried out by authorities in ensuring that the requirements are complied with. This may include the cost of inspecting at weekends. Alternatively, a solution such as photographic evidence may reduce the need for staff to visit sites at weekends’ the document states.
On top of this it would also be necessary to update the Electronic Transfer of Notices (EToN) - a software system used by both councils and undertakers for road works - to take account of these changes.
EToN’s technical specification would need to be updated, creating a cost for utilities companies, highways authorities and contractors as they upgrade their IT systems and familiarise their staff with the changes.
Utilities could pass costs on the bill payers the DfT said, although it estimated these price rises were unlikely to be significant.
Whitehall officials state that there would be a ‘big difference in outcome’ depending on whether the works' promoter chooses to clear the site or to continue working through the weekend.
However they also concede: ‘We do not have evidence to suggest what proportion of works will choose to clear rather than work through the weekend. The costs and benefits of the policy will be sensitive to a shift in the balance between the two scenarios.’
Another area of uncertainty is the enforcement of the policy, especially in light of the extra costs it could bring to local authorities under the current financial constraints.
The DfT states: ‘Given that the enforcement of the requirement may be an additional cost for local authorities there is considerable uncertainty as to the extent to which the requirement would be enforced… Our assumption is that enforcement will be risk/issue led and subject to consultation’
There could also be some uncertainty over what it means to be actually working on these sites at the weekend, as the DfT explicitly state they do not mean 'someone being present on site' but in fact 'work being carried out to progress the job'. This raises questions over how the department would define that work.
The consultation period will run until Friday 27th May 2016.