Research carried out by the Transport Research Institute at Edinburgh Napier University shows that the new powers on permitting and lane rental cut the numbers of days that utilities occupied the roads, and reduced delays whilst the roadworks were in place. Utilities also carried out more work outwith normal working hours. The savings in travel time far outweighed the additional costs to the utility companies.
So how is the Scottish Government dealing with this situation? In 2015 the then Transport Minister, Derek Mackay, asked the office of the Scottish Roadworks Commissioner – an organisation that monitors and coordinates roadworks across Scotland – to carry out a review of its powers. After a consultation to which only three utility companies responded, the published review did not recommend permit or lane rental schemes, citing Scotland’s utility companies’ generally better record at giving notice of their planned works than their counterparts in England – although perhaps ignoring the fact that English authorities can now put conditions on how and when companies dig the roads, which Scottish councils cannot.
It did recommend an increase in the guarantee period for reinstated roadworks from two to six years, and giving local authorities the power to levy £120 fines to cover failed reinstatements, both of which should cut the number of crumbling collapsing ruts and trenches that we see in our roads.
The government, in its response to the report, accepts most recommendations – but suggests that the £120 fines should only be levied on failures identified during the period when the road is dug up. So if we’re lucky and the new law required is passed, we might see some improvement in the quality of what is put back after these companies dig up the road.
But is that really enough? Delays from roadworks have been estimated to cost the UK economy as much as £4.3 billion per year, and other research shows that one excavation after another weakens the road and its surface, worsening our roads maintenance backlog (although perhaps unsurprisingly the utility companies dispute this).
Other countries have shown that stricter controls on what utilities do in our roads, and when, can cut these costs. Scotland may have the best register of roadworks in the UK, but knowing precisely what is being dug up and where is cold comfort to the millions of travellers whose journeys are disrupted every year. Why do we have to take the softly-softly approach?
This opinion piece first appeared in The Scotsman
newspaper. You can view the full article here