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.”