Lane rental schemes, where utility companies are charged up to £2,500 a day for digging up the busiest roads at peak times, could be adopted by councils nationwide after successful trials in Kent and London.
The lane rental scheme allows local authorities to charge utility companies at peak times or by the hour or day to carry out works on busy routes, encouraging firms to switch to quieter roads and to avoid peak times.
Businesses are also incentivised to collaborate on works to avoid the same stretch of road to be dug up twice.
In London, utility companies have worked together more than 600 times since lane rental was introduced in 2015, up from just 100 beforehand.
Transport minister Jo Johnson said: “Lane rental has seen a massive drop in disruption to drivers as utility companies have changed when and where they carry out work. Now we want millions of motorists around England to get the same benefits.”
The Department for Transport (DfT) carried out a consultation into the scheme last year, and the majority of those responding supported its rollout nationwide. Many said they wanted to take advantage of the ‘clear benefits’ of lane rental schemes.
RAC head of roads policy Nicholas Lyes said: “This is a very welcome announcement. Trials showed that some of the worst congestion caused by planned utility works in London was reduced by half on roads where lane rental was in operation, so rolling this out will extend the benefits nationwide.”
However, Street Works UK, the trade association representing utility companies and contractors on street work issues, questioned whether the scheme actually cut congestion.
Bob Gallienne, chief executive of Street Works, said: “It is disappointing that the Government has decided to extend lane rental without any clear evidence that it reduces congestion.
“We support initiatives to reduce congestion but we believe this approach is a blunt instrument that will make it harder for utilities companies to deliver vital infrastructure that powers the economy.”
He said that the Government’s own analysis of the existing lane rental schemes concludes that there is no causal link between lane rental schemes and reduced congestion.
“Utilities companies are delivering the infrastructure that the UK needs to drive up productivity, create economic growth and deliver on government’s priorities such as broadband and new homes,” he said. “While we do not believe lane rental is the best solution, we will continue to work closely with the Government to ensure their proposals are implemented in a manner that reduces complexity, recognises the need for consistency and is only used in targeted and limited situations.”
Mike Cherry, national chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), also welcomed the scheme’s wider rollout. He said: “Congestion on roads is an ongoing and frustrating concern for those that run and work for small businesses, and their customers.
"Our own research shows 45% of small firms identify congestion on local roads as their top transport concern, while 31% said frequent roadworks are a major issue affecting their business, in particular the length of time taken to complete the work.
“Getting stuck in traffic costs valuable time and money, so a plan that cuts down on this is a welcome one.”
About 2.5 million roadworks are carried out each year, costing the economy £4 billion in increased costs to businesses through late employees or deliveries, according to the Department for Transport (DfT).
Richard Burnett, chief executive of the Road Haulage Association (RHA) said: “We urge authorities to reinvest all surplus lane rental revenues in high-quality road improvement schemes to help make the network fit for purpose.”
He also claimed that the scheme has significantly increased utility companies’ operating costs in the pilot scheme areas, which has seen some companies delay planned works.
“DfT reports that some utility companies have waited until infrastructure has needed repairing to avoid incurring the extra costs as emergency works don’t incur charges,” said Burnett. “This isn’t a good sign and certainly flies against the move to encourage contractors to plan and synchronise their work schedules to reduce disruption to road users; so this needs managing very carefully.
“The last thing we need is more unplanned roadworks.”
The Department for Transport will produce guidance in the autumn to help councils develop lane rental schemes for approval. The first schemes could start by the end of 2019.