Road Openings by Utilities

The Assembly's independent auditor, Mr John Dowdall, has today published a report on Road Service's control of road openings made by the providers of utility services such as water, electricity, gas and telecommunications.

Utilities have statutory rights to open roads to install, repair or replace their equipment. During 2000, an estimated 46,000 excavations have been undertaken. One stretch of road had 76 openings in a period of two years. These street works not only cause substantial disruption to traffic but they can also cause long term damage to the foundations and ride quality of the roads. It is estimated that up to £10 million of Roads Service's annual maintenance budget is spent repairing roads as a result of these works. Currently the utilities are not required to make any financial contribution to the long term damage caused.

Certain legal requirements can be imposed on utilities under the Street Works (NI) Order 1995. These cover the key issues of reinstatement and co-ordination of works and commit the utilities to minimising disruption to traffic and ensuring high quality reinstatement.

The Audit Office Report includes the following main findings:

  • With the introduction of legislation in 1995 utilities were to be self-policing by working to agreed Codes of Practice and observing a new national specification for the reinstatement of roads. However, only two of the six planned Codes of Practice have so far been agreed and implemented (paragraphs 1.1-1.10).
  • In 1995, Roads Service recognised the need for a computerised system for the notification and registration of street works. Development work began in 1997 but implementation has been continually delayed. The system has now been introduced in the four Roads Service divisions (paragraphs 2.10-2.11).
  • The absence of a street works register has been a key factor in delaying the implementation of Codes of Practice for Inspection and Co-ordination. As a result, co-ordination of works has become more difficult; essential management information is unavailable or only capable of production at disproportionate cost and there is a less efficient inspection process (paragraphs 2.15 and 2.16).
  • Under the 1995 Order, Roads Service can carry out sample inspections at the utilities expense to monitor performance and issue Improvement Notices where a utility's overall performance is consistently below the prescribed standards. However, further legislation and the Inspection Code of Practice must be in place to allow fees to be charged and these will not be introduced until sometime in 2001. Roads Service accepts that its decision to delay introducing the Code until a computerised street works register is available, has resulted in fees foregone of up to £600,000 in 1999-2000 (paragraphs 4.1 to 4.14).
  • The Code of Practice for Inspections envisages Roads Service inspecting up to 30 per cent of all street works. Given the current level of estimated road openings, this would result in a minimum sample of nearly 14,000 a year. However, in the absence of suitable records, the Audit Office could not establish if this level of inspection was currently being carried out. The report recommends that Roads Service should carry out, and be seen to be carrying out, the level of inspection envisaged by the Code of Practice. In the opinion of the Audit Office this will provide greater assurance that the road network is being properly protected and ultimately minimise any burden on future public funds as a result of defective utility work (paragraphs 5.1 to 5.6).
  • Analysis of samples taken from reinstatements between 1996 and 2000 shows an upward trend in the overall failure rate from 38 per cent to 44 per cent. The Audit Office found that, while the results were drawn to the attention of the utilities, in most cases no further action was taken by Roads Service nor were any wider measures demanded from the utilities to ensure that subsequent performance was improved. However, during the Audit Office's examination, Roads Service initiated action through the Court against some utilities to address the problem. While this action is welcomed, the Audit Office considers that Roads Service should have adopted a more proactive approach when the extent of the problem was first identified in 1996 (paragraphs 5.16-5.22).