Calls for Suffolk County Council to introduce tougher fines on utility firms after overrunning roadworks in Ipswich
Calls have been made for tougher sanctions by Suffolk County Council on utility firms that overrun on roadworks, after multi-million pound firms were being fined just hundreds of pounds for behind-schedule work.
Figures revealed under Freedom of Information laws have shown that in the last three years in Ipswich, 30 different works by utility companies have run over the designated timescale.
But despite work disrupting thousands of motorists on key routes such as Colchester Road, Henley Road, Foxhall Road and Sidegate Lane, most companies were only fined between £100 and £500 per day.
Over the three-year period from October 2013 to September this year, just six sets of work resulted in a four-figure fine.
Anglian Water was fined the most for six days of overrunning work in Nacton Road totalling £9,000.
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Sandra Gage, Labour spokeswoman for roads, transport and planning at Suffolk County Council, said: “Some of the charges here are quite frankly quite low and they would be perfectly happy to accept those, and indeed may even be budgeting for those.
“Only 10% of any of the works on the highway are even likely to be checked or monitored, and I think we have a problem here that we have utilities that know they only have a one in 10 chance of being picked up if they go over.
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“The sums of money are hardly anything at all and as things stand Ipswich residents and businesses are not getting a fair deal from Suffolk County Council.”
Ms Gage said she believed utility firms often routinely booked a week to carry out roadworks, even on instances where the duration of work was expected to last only several hours, but a Suffolk County Council spokesman said any such incident would be questioned.
James Finch, Suffolk County Council’s cabinet member for highways and transport, said: “No public utility company wants to spend more time than they need to working on the highway as it costs them money, but public utility companies have a statutory right to work on the highway network to maintain and improve their own mains network and equipment.
“We choose to work with the public utilities companies when it comes to planned works to reduce disruption as much as possible but sometimes works will overrun.
“We question companies when they request time to work on our highways network and normally it is the bigger schemes that overrun, due to impact from other emergency works or additional unforeseen works that are uncovered during the repairs.”
It is understood that the highways team is not considering alternative sanctions.
Opposition Labour group transport figures have previously called for a permit scheme in order to crackdown on issues of overrunning work, but Mark Stevens, assistant director of operational highways, said that the idea a permit scheme would instantly solve the problem was a myth.
“Part of the misunderstanding is the permit system would be like waving a magic wand,” he said. “Nothing different happens – it doesn’t have a magic effect.
“It adds resources, bureaucracy and costs.
“There’s a penalty process in place already and all the permit is going to do is drive up the cost. It’s a falsehood that the permit system will make a difference.
“We have got a good relationship with those utilities.”
According to highways staff, the differences in fines is down to the length of delay and the level of impact it has on the roads, meaning that in the last three years a one day delay has resulted in a fine anywhere between £100 and £2,500.
Ms Gage said that county council budget cuts had impacted on monitoring of roadworks and has planned to raise the matter in today’s county council scrutiny committee.
“I would like to see them review their inspection programme – I don’t think they are putting the resources they should do to ensure Ipswich is not held up economically as a result of sloppy roadworks,” she added. “What we have in Ipswich is the tip of the iceberg.”
In September this year, Anglian Water overran on four different works, racking up fines of £16,000 for a total of 34 days of overruns.
While unable to explain why those delays happened, Anglian Water said that it worked hard to prevent delays.
“We carry out more repairs and maintenance than any other utility company in the region and 99% of our jobs are completed on time,” a spokeswoman said.
“We work hard to make any essential repairs to our pipes as quickly as possible; however, sometimes the scale of the work we need to carry out only becomes apparent once our teams are on site.
“This can lead to work overrunning.
“Whenever we carry out repairs, the safety of the public and our staff is our top priority.
“Often there are other amenities under the ground, such as gas and electricity, which we need to work around, adding to the complexity of the job.
“We aim to keep customers updated on any work we are carrying out and we would like to thank people for bearing with us while we carry out vital work.”
In February this year, National Grid was issued a £2,500 fine for one day of additional work in Woodcock Road, but said it carried out work as quickly as possible.
“We work closely with local authorities and other agencies to plan our work so it can be delivered as efficiently as possible and with minimal disruption to the public,” a spokes-man said.
“Innovative techniques such as inserting the new gas pipes into the old mains and using ‘keyhole’ technology for repairs wherever possible also enables work to be completed efficiently.
“Working out of hours and at weekends is something else we sometimes do to complete jobs in the fastest time possible.
However on occasions we face unforeseen issues which delays our work.
“It’s regrettable for all concerned when this happens and we do all we can to avoid it.”
In October 2013, ES Pipelines was fined a total of £6,250 for work 33 days overdue.
A spokesman from the firm said: “Regrettably on this occasion, although the engineering work was completed on time, a number of steel plates which had been left to protect the road surface were not removed by our contractors due to bad weather.
While this unusual situation caused little disruption to traffic we appreciate that the noise of vehicles driving over them would have been annoying for local residents.”