Call for UK utility firms to face higher fines for ‘street scars’ on pavements

<span>Paving stones in Cheltenham filled in with concrete.</span><span>Photograph: Cheltenham Civic Society</span>
Paving stones in Cheltenham filled in with concrete.Photograph: Cheltenham Civic Society

The government must increase fines on utility companies that dig up pavements for roadworks, then pour in concrete rather than fixing the mess, a government adviser has said.

Telecoms and water companies are creating “street scars” in a “wasteful process” that is marring British high streets, Nicholas Boys Smith, who chairs the Office for Place in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has said in a report.

He uses the term “street scars” to describe black or grey slabs of concrete that disfigure the paving of streets and pavements, examples of which can be seen all over the UK.

Boys Smith told the Guardian: “It’s a ridiculous and wasteful process. One set of workers turn up and ruin the road. And then, if you’re lucky, months later another set turn up and put it back together again.”

The government adviser, who runs the thinktank Create Streets, blamed the privatisation of utility companies for the number of street scars.

He said it had happened due to utility companies becoming “statutory undertakers” under the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991, who are allowed to dig up roads to undertake works.

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He added that since 1984, Ofcom had allowed new cable companies to have licences that give them the status of statutory undertaker. This has led to many more companies being able to dig up the road by right.

“The 1991 legislation leaves councils utterly powerless. Utility firms have six months to repair their damage and face risibly small fines for non-compliance. The process is failing and our neighbourhoods and high streets are the victims,” said Boys Smith.

He also blamed the proliferation of roadworks and a “culture of not caring” about turning a neatly paved road into an ugly mess.

“The teams carrying out the work are simply employed, trained, resourced and rushed to such a point that they either cannot, do not or are not asked to do a proper job. Splodges of tarmac on the street for months or years are a choice, not an obligation,” Boys Smith added.

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Those who fail to restore the road to its previous state are only liable for a fine of up to £2,500. Boys Smith said: “This is clearly monstrously insufficient for the size of the firms involved and is not working.”

He recommended utility firms have a deadline of three months to return the road to its original state, and to greatly increase fines to £5,000 per month (or more) for the three months and £10,000 per month (or more) thereafter.

Boys Smith said utility companies could afford this: “Although they are presented with very high operating and financing costs, most of the utility firms nevertheless remain in rude financial health. For example, in 2022-23 the total profit before tax of the eight main English water firms totalled over £3bn.”