The UK highway network is an important and indispensable asset valued at around £300 billion. This extensive highway network has a dual purpose: overground it facilitates the multiple transportation demands of people and goods, whilst underground it houses a complex network of millions of miles of utility apparatus supporting day-to-day commercial and domestic activity. A conflict of interest occurs when overground activity has to be disturbed to enable access to underground apparatus. It is regarded that highway excavations in urban areas have a negative impact on the road network, causing disruption and congestion, premature deterioration of the road structure, increased social and economic costs, and increased environmental impact, as well as compromising the street scene.
Highway Authorities are obligated with a statutory Network Management Duty under the Traffic Management Act 2004 to manage their road networks in the most optimum manner to secure the safe and expeditious movement of traffic.
Statutory undertakers (utility companies) have rights to access their apparatus. However, highway legislation (primarily the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991) regulates and prescribes the manner in which they may do so. In terms of volume, around 1.5 million utility excavation works with a direct construction cost of £1.5 billion are undertaken annually in the UK. This figure does not include maintenance and rehabilitation works undertaken by Highway Authorities. Congestion caused by utility works is said to account for 5% of the total congestion, which the Eddington Study valued at around £20 billion per annum, whilst costs to society as a whole are estimated at around £5.1 billion per year.
There are multiple reasons why the management of road works and street works activity should be given close attention. These include:
• year-on-year increases in highway excavation activity;
Loughborough University in partnership with Derby City Council is examining how to improve the management of all this street works activity.
Initial scoping interviews undertaken with various stakeholders of the industry have revealed a complex industry with multiple actors, factors and constraints. Feedback from public and business representatives confirmed the disruptive and expensive impact of street works, with interviewees complaining of often feeling ‘uninformed’ about highway works.
Other feedback revealed that stakeholders enjoyed and highly valued good working relationships between Highway Authorities and statutory undertakers. However, key constraints that were considered to have an impact on enhanced street works management related to substandard systems and processes, regulatory and legislative duties, as well as adversarial needs and priorities of differing stakeholders. Whilst issues around processes are, relatively, easier to address, deeper issues were also identified relating to entrenched cultural attitudes which fragment the industry and encourage silo working. Based on the scoping interviews, a series of recommendations are being prepared for the improved management of street works activity.