Pipes and cables should not be buried under roads

One of the maddest things about our congested road network in the UK is the way the authorities chose to place most of the crucial pipes and cables for water, electricity, gas and telephones under the carriageway and then seal them in under piles of rubble and tarmac. Each time they need to replace or repair expensive roadworks are undertaken, disrupting the highway, increasing the costs of the utility business, and creating tensions between the utility customers as road users and the utility managements.

I am trying to persuade Councils and utility operators to place all  utilities under verges or pavements when laying new ones, preferably in robust and secure conduits with access. We have long since stopped burying the cables and pipes of an office  in the plaster of the walls, preferring to run them in architectural conduits with easy access usually under floors. Why not do the same for our main utilities?

Wokingham Borough has said it is adopting this for its new developments. Thames Water has said it likes the idea. It could be done for replacements as well as for new areas. Once installed the future costs of maintenance, repair and replacement will be greatly reduced. Above all our very limited road capacity will not be so readily reduced by utility works, and fewer people will be disturbed by the ominous sound of a pneumatic drill once again cutting up the highway.

I am taking this up with other  major network providers. It’s a way to save utilities substantial money over the longer term, and to start to cut down on the number of times our roads are disrupted to improve or maintain basic systems unconnected with the roads.


  1. Lifelogic
    October 28, 2015

    This would often be a good plan.

    The main problem however is that the inconvenience to road users does not often fall as a cost to the companies blocking the roads so they simply do not care about the chaos and costs they cause.

    Alternative routes (and the timing of the works) are rarely properly organised. Often you will see a diversion that puts perhaps ten time as much traffic as normal onto another road but no one even changes the traffic light phasing to reflect this. Chaos and £billion of people’s time is wasted.

    This is on roads that are already constricted by absurd islands, humps, empty bus lanes, anti-car traffic lights, pointless no right and left turns, environmental area blocks and a total lack of road investment (other than in the usual anti-car road blocking by the government) .

    Or one lane at traffic light is blocked but again no change to light phasing to reflect the lower capacity. Very often traffic lights out of action is a large improvement to traffic flows.

    Perhaps we need a traffic freedom day with all the traffic lights switched off and all the bus lanes available to cars and see the vast improvements to traffic flows. If often happens to small areas of London when their systems break down.

    Once again it is the bonkers green “BBC think” religion – bikes, buses, walking and trains good – cars, trucks. planes bad that is the cause of the problem. This and the government inspired road blocking that makes people have to drive further, congests the roads and increases pollution and fuel use .

    Also get some more parking build/permitted so people do not have to drive round and round looking for it!

  2. Lifelogic
    October 28, 2015

    So Cameron is to tell us today that:

    “Britain being outside the European Union will not be a “land of milk and honey”, could cost the country hundreds of millions of pounds and may not cut immigration.”

    Well it “may not cut immigration”. Certain not with ‘no if no buts to the 10s of thousands’ people like him are in charge anyway. But with proper leadership and out of the EU we can clearly select the levels and the quality of those we choose accept.

    Did anyone ever suggest the UK would be “a land of milk and honey” outside the EU. Anyway honey is mainly just an expensive way to buy sugar and best avoided.

    Leaving will however restore the UKs democracy, make it richer, restore the control its own borders and enable it to trader with whomsoever it likes around the World.

    Has this silly man decided to ask for anything of substance in the negotiations yet? The last list I saw was nothing nothing and nothing and restrictions of benefits for migrants for an hour or two after arrival!

    Perhaps rather than telling us it could cost us hundreds of millions of pounds he could perhaps for ones tell us WHY he it would cost this money. Actually all the evidence is we will be far better off net, without the costs, taxes, frees and many absurd regulatory restriction of the EU.

    1. JoeSoap
      October 28, 2015

      Yes, he becomes more like Major by the day-making statements which the unintelligent might accept at face value, but with a moment’s thought or analysis are totally bogus.

      1. JoeSoap
        October 28, 2015

        Actually in a way worse than Major. Major tried to be analytical but couldn’t be, whereas Cameron just works on the emotions of the situation. A kind of Blair without thinking first.

    2. alan jutson
      October 28, 2015


      “has this silly man decided to ask for anything of substance in the negotiations yet”

      The Eu leaders have asked him to write a list.

      All these meetings with EU Country leaders, and they do not have a clue either it would seem.

      So guess negotiation has not even started as yet.

      We should have some hard nosed Commercial people negotiating on our behalf not politicians, who more often than not could not negotiate their way out of a paper bag.

      For proof just look at some of the pay off deals done over the years, and then re-employment just a few weeks later to an even higher position, or higher rate.

  3. Tim L
    October 28, 2015


    I do hope you are not the first person to think of this idea!

    For years I assumed there was some really practical reason, perhaps to do with access rights that prevented such things happening and therefore it had to be the roads.

    To think it is 2015 and someone has only now had such a flash of inspiration is rather a sad thought, given how clever our political class is supposed to be.

    Reply I have been arguing this on and off for a few years, and have been told Wokingham has now adopted it for new developments. I wish to end the need to use pneumatic drills to find the pipes and cables.

  4. Richard1
    October 28, 2015

    Excellent initiative. Utilities need to be made to bear the proper cost of disrupting traffic. They should have to pay a fee to dig up a road, be allocated a specific completion time and then be subject to a rising hourly charge for each hour in which traffic is in any way disrupted if they don’t complete on time. Persuasion is laudable but only when such companies and utilities have to pay – and the performance of individuals is therefore on the line – is there any hope of change.

  5. Lifelogic
    October 28, 2015

    Sorry I meant:

    Perhaps rather than just telling us it could cost us hundreds of millions of pounds, Cameron could (for once) tell us WHY specifically he believes it would cost us this money – as it is clearly contrary to all the abundant evidence.

  6. Martyn G
    October 28, 2015

    Entirely agree, John. A some years ago the main road running through the middle of a town first laid out by Alfred the Great (a burgh) was expensively resurfaced and when complete presented a smooth and unbroken surface. A month or so later the gas board dug up a channel to work on their pipes and left the road ridged with a poor quality filled in trench. Later that year the water board dug another trench and, again left another poorly finished ridge.
    No resurfacing or major repairs have since been made and of course others (BT etc) have dug up the road for their purposes and so the main road now is so badly broken and cluttered with holes, broken and missing tarmac that it borders on the impossible to ride a pushbike on it without risk of losing one’s fillings. With the current financial cutbacks imposed across the county I foresee the road eventually breaking up entirely within a few years.
    The real problem is that no one seems to be responsible for the quality of the repair to the road surface after it has been dug up for whatever reason. Until that also is addressed nothing will change.

  7. JoeSoap
    October 28, 2015

    Good luck with that!
    Given that anything to do with construction or traffic control in this country is totally disorganised in peace time, it will be a minor miracle to change things the way you say.

  8. alan jutson
    October 28, 2015

    “pipes and cables should not be buried under roads”

    A Sensible observation.

  9. Hefner
    October 28, 2015

    Mr Redwood, what you are proposing makes a lot of sense giving that the pedestrian population appears to be disappearing rapidly. Recent bouts of road/utility work around Lower Earley have only created long delays. One of the other problems is the work being scheduled over 6, 8 or 10 weeks when regular passers-by clearly notice the presence of workers over hardly half the length of the periods. Then when the actual utility work is finished, it still takes half a week for the company responsible for the moveable traffic lights to take them away. Lack of joint-up thinking/action between different contractors?

  10. agricola
    October 28, 2015

    You are absolutely correct in wishing to detach service piping and cabling from our roads and placing them in accessible conduits beneath pavements. Why has it taken at least a hundred years to get around to realising the obvious, not you, the country. As you say the initial investment might be higher but the maintenance costs will be much lower, and the gain to traffic flow enormous.

    I would suggest not waiting for implementation via new developments, but to create a programme to be rolled out nationwide. I would suggest that such a programme would be of infinitely greater benefit to the population than the vanity project called HS2. Waiting could waste another hundred years.

    1. Mike Wilson
      October 29, 2015

      Services are already under the pavements on new developments. Have been for donkey’s years. Moving old services would cost an astronomical amount of money.

  11. Know-Dice
    October 28, 2015

    Out of the EU and having 9-10Billion extra to spend here or reduce National debt, sounds like “a land of cake and eat it”…

    And this morning on BBC some cycling organisation asking for cyclist to be sable to turn left on a red light, what’s wrong with getting off your bicycle and walking round the corner on the pavement then starting off safely again. Of course a lot of cyclists in London ignore traffic lights in any case.

  12. Roy Grainger
    October 28, 2015

    Councils are quite happy to dig up roads because it fits with their plans to slow down and inconvenience motorists. They will not want to dig up pavements instead because that would inconvenience cyclists.

  13. Tony Harrison
    October 28, 2015

    It’s almost uncanny how Mr Redwood so often echoes my own thoughts: were I in his constituency I should probably still support his Party, since he remains true to its underlying principles…
    For years I’ve thought the same about the lunacy of digging up the road to bury essential services. As I write, the lane a few yards from my home still has a huge pit surrounded by barriers, to be filled in (one trusts) at some time in the near future, a relic of some emergency water mains repairs the other day.
    Some say that in congested, densely populated England, it is hard to find space at the roadside for this sort of thing. I say that especially since we are so congested it it is more essential than ever that we stop delaying traffic, and confine this burial of pipes & cables to the verges – not the highway.

  14. Ex-expat Colin
    October 28, 2015

    Speak to the mayor(s) of Jeddah. Some of that was done in the 70’s there, particularly EHV transmission u/g. etc ed

    Ok where you are building into the wilderness..systems engineering applicable. Changing legacy builds will be the hardest thing to do. A lot of UK installations suffer from age, ground movement/loading, thats apart from poor installation initially.

    My concern and which calls for systems change is in London..both water pressure and sewage. That place and likely others are foolishly overloaded. Water pressure in SE London is about half mine in Worcester making a mains only driven shower verging on almost useless. And everybody has been encouraged/forced to get a combi boiler..just dumb most of this!

    Best of luck with that idea though…somebody later will drop that baton I expect. Wait for the PFI idea!!

  15. Bert Young
    October 28, 2015

    Within 3 months of the A4074 between Nuneham Courteney and Oxford being resurfaced , a big section was dug up ( drainage ? ) . It caused traffic chaos and disruption to communication during the process . The same was true between the Crowmarsh roundabout – on the A4074 towards Henley – this time for fibre optic cable .

    Why this sort of approach is allowed without co-ordination and consultation , I have no idea ; it smacks of poor controls between the Local and County Authorities . It is true that all of the drainage system in my area is entirely under the road ; the same is true for gas supply . Whenever there is any sort of repair or additional supply requirement , the roads become blocked or denied to traffic . It never has made sense and should be brought under control – one control !.

    October 28, 2015

    I do not know whether more cables under pavements might create other problems in the future. Might be a good idea.
    JR you’ve dug open a whole new world here. I see from the internet there are umpteen pipes and cables under roads and indeed pavements.
    50 utility companies in London alone digging and laying, each with their own private coded squiggles in spray paint denoting this and that beyond the ken of ordinary folk and one another.
    Heaven only knows the problems of say widening a road when the pavement could have many different cables where the householders and businesses would need to be individually notified of disruptions and the companies involved would need to re-route. their services according to their own particular timetables.

    In Canada, because of frozen ground in winter, one sees masses of ugly cables hung unceremoniously along domestic streets. They are endevouring to bury them in new developments but Utilities complain of the expense. Also special and relatively expensive hydrovac-trucks are necessary to squirt hot or cold water around any repair of cables to reveal their location so eliminating the mistaken cutting of electricity and gas pipes. So, placing cables and pipes anywhere in the UK too can be a problem.

    With the forced redundancy of maintenance officers and staff in the “Works” departments of Councils where much of their knowledge was almost entirely stored in their brains rather than in cumbersome badly updated and disjointed filing systems, there is a big future problem as many underground and other maintenance is unrecorded.

    I do not know the definitive answer to the mind-boggling complexities in buildings, pipes and cables.

    It would be easy for a young person to start thinking like a Corbyn. Nationalisation of all utilities, road, pavement, housing would in theory solve the problem. Everything under one umbrella. Everything there nicely co-ordinated. Each utility and facility notifying one another in a socialist ideal of inter-cooperation and man-hugging. Or in their pc world. “person hugging” ( but only if such a display was not harassment and racial abuse ).
    Fortunately for the young there are those of us over half a century old who have lived through, just……, the era when electricity , water, gas, telephone, rail, road building was nationalised.
    Unfortunately, and sad to say, it was chaos. No-one gave a damn. No-one cared. Each section, each utility and Council Works department just did its own thing. Many “records” were not even , believe it or not, in alphabetical order. The object of the people involved was “just get through the day, clock off, pick up you wages at the end of the week ”
    Of course the profit motive doesn’t entirely get rid of such nonsense and chaos. But, as they say:
    “Capitalism is mean, nasty, disorganised, corrupt, inefficient, wasteful, immoral. But the other political and economic systems are ten times worse.

  17. margaret
    October 28, 2015

    Good idea but I foresee much haggling over private property which needs to be excavated etc , green belt and the likes yet how many years have we had to suffer lane and road closures and all the knock on ramifications of that.

  18. BobE
    October 28, 2015

    One of the problems of using conduits for service pipes and cables is metal theft. Very difficult to prevent when access is reasonable.

    1. Mike Wilson
      October 29, 2015

      Not many people are going to dig down to a live cable – break into it in two places and pull a length of it out. Sure, they’ll nick it from the side of railways where it runs above ground. Water and gas pipes are plastic these days.

  19. Mark
    October 28, 2015

    The idea has considerable merit. However, it is necessary to think about why we have these problems in the first place. The roadway is a public asset, meaning that utilities have one prime contact point. Its verges are often in different ownership, so the issue of wayleaves becomes important: some landowners may seek wayleave rents even if they are required to grant a wayleave, and the administration costs of dealing with many different landowners on a route can be significant. In many cases the roads may be bounded by hedgerows or have no meaningful verge or pavement at all.

    Incidentally, locally we had some works on electricity cables that were buried under the pavement: they used the roadway as a storage spot for the spoil for the ditch they dug and for parking for their vehicles and plant, and installed a one way system and traffic light control, so there was little real gain from having the cables under the pavement, except that the road itself was not given a botched repair.

    1. Mark
      October 29, 2015

      Perhaps I should have pointed out that B4RN, the community fibre broadband company rolling out gigabit fibre to the home in parts of Lancashire, Cumbria and Yorkshire, has managed to obtain free wayleaves mainly in trenches on agricultural land (often dug by the farmers themselves), and thus saved themselves the costs of digging up the road and repairing it. Of course, it’s easier when dealing with agricultural land rather than urban conditions.

    October 28, 2015

    Where the countryside is already uglied by electricity main pylons, windfarms, maggot farms, sewerage tanks and facilities, factory-farming, minimally used grouse shooting moorland,- the above-ground hanging of cables and pipes could be used (as in North America ) and saving money for utility companies and consumers alike by way of easier access for repairs and renewals. More money might also thus be available for more cosmetic and expensive concealment of pipes closer to our neighbourhoods.
    Also it is unclear to the general public how and if the utility companies are bound by law to provide underground utility cables and pipes to more out of the way housing developments and have their general customers pay for it in generalised bills. Do such housing developments pay an extra amount of money other than through a housing “band” calculation via the Council-Tax? Seems a bit socialistic if not.

  21. Original Richard
    October 28, 2015

    “Yes”, your proposal sounds like a good idea and I had this idea myself many years ago.

    But I no longer think it is a good idea.

    This is because easy access to the utilities means that theft is even easier and can even be a liability.

    I am fortunate to live in a village considered to be “a good area” yet in the last few years we have had large telephone and electricity cables stolen several times for the copper.

    We have had the flagstones of our local church stolen.

    Easier access to utilities will simply lead to more theft.

    I also came to the conclusion that easily accessible conduits could be used to hide road-side bombs.

    October 28, 2015

    One of the odd things about pavements and the Law in its fullness, I believe and I may stand corrected, is that pedestrian pavements actually constitute part of the highway. So, actually driving on a pavement in, of course, certain circumstances is not actually against the law. This being so and even if it is not so, it still seems bizarre that wheelie bins are allowed to obstruct the pavement or obstruct “the road” , without immediate visual and physical human supervision. Bad but foreseeable accidents have happened to children and adults alike without arrests and prosecutions made within the Local Authorities of their officials for encouraging and allowing such obstruction literally every day of the week except the Sabbath depending on whether the householder has gone on a Sunday holiday and therefore not available to move the offending wheelie bin.

    Digging away on pavements to get to underground pipes and cables by Utility companies may mean the displacement of wheelie bins as a life-threatening traffic hazard and save lives irrespective of the Duty of Care ill-practiced by Local Authorities. However, people may need to walk further into the road proper but hopefully no Wheelie-bin will have been moved from the pavement to the middle of the road by the odd careless Utility Worker.

  23. The PrangWizard
    October 28, 2015

    I support Mr Redwoods proposal. I would add that road surfaces break up and require patching and repair often with no contribution from utilities. The cause is the wet and ice on stretches of many roads which because of the proximity of trees get no sunlight the whole year. There are text-book examples within a mile of where I live. Where there are no trees the road is fine, where there are stands it has broken up.

    I would offer a radical solution. Require that all stands of trees within say 50 feet of the road surface on the south side of roads be cut down, on private land as well as public. Single trees with distance between one and another are not usually a problem. I would go further and say that all trees where branches overhang the road surface on any side be cut down too, not just the branches, the whole tree.

    It is not simply the road surface which suffers but there is a safety issue too.

  24. Mark
    October 28, 2015

    The work has now been moved about 150 yards – still under pavement outside a row of low traffic shops – but now close to a roundabout, which is subjected to 4 way traffic lights in rotation (2 of the roads are low traffic residential cul-de-sacs, while the main flow turns make a turn rather than carrying across). The reason? They have fenced off an alternative pedestrian route out into the road around their work.

  25. English Pensioner
    October 28, 2015

    When I lived in a 1930’s house in Harrow, the Electricity and Gas were under the pavements, I remember clearly because the then Gas Board was replacing pipes and managed to cut through the electricity supply! The main sewer, however, was in the middle of the road, equidistant from the houses each side. So some utilities are already under pavements, the problem seems to be that the various utility companies want to keep their services away from the others to avoid incidents, as above.
    Personally, I think the Council cause more problems with “safety” measures which slow the traffic unnecessarily. Some time ago, my local council put a new traffic island and street lamp in the middle of a main road. Unfortunately, it is opposite a bus stop where another department had erected a nice bus shelter a year previously. Net result, when a bus is at the stop, only small vehicles can squeeze past it which frequently results in a long line of stationery traffic blocking a near-by roundabout.
    Councils need to get their own houses in order first!

  26. Bazman
    October 28, 2015

    There are a number of methods of trenchless pipe/cable laying systems available for new installations. Maybe forcing utility companies to use this wherever possible may be part of the solution, but you can be sure that the ones calling for minimal disruption will be the same ones against any regulations or the forcing of companies to work in any other way agreeing with their bleating of additional cost and interference. Which is it? As per..

  27. DiscoveredJoys
    October 28, 2015

    I have to disagree. Utilities will usually lay pipes and cables in the footpath wherever possible – it’s cheaper for them to dig and reinstate the surface there. However in urban areas the ground under the footpath is already ‘full’. Gas pipes, water pipes, electricity cables, telecoms ducts and cables, cable tv cables, traffic light cabling, small sewer pipes crossing to join larger sewers in the roadway. In some places heating pipes.

    The bigger pipes and cables need to be buried deeper, which means a wider excavation, which can only be sensibly laid where there is plenty of room. You can’t divert a 900mm water main around another service easily.

    Now if you were to argue that necessary work was progressed with more urgency, I’d agree. Although from observation the utilities are constantly improving in this area. That sill leave the mystery of Marie Celeste roadworks on the motorways though.

  28. Jon
    October 28, 2015

    If you do get somewhere on this PLEASE don’t forget London.

    When a newly elected Boris was asking for ways to save and improve transport etc I, and maybe one or two others was messaging to have service tunnels in the City rather than constantly being dug up and filled.

    In the last 10 days one same area off Bevis Marks has been dug up and filled atleast 4 times that I’ve passed it. It’s like that all over the Sq Mile.

    Dig it once, put a tunnel, cylinder with access points and no need to restrict transport, have the noise disruption, barriers etc etc.

    Why not? I suspect its the same as the RMT objections to automating the trains.

    Good luck with it, I hope you get somewhere, if you do don’t forget London.

    1. Ken Moore
      October 29, 2015

      Good point – I suspect there isn’t enough space under the pavement for all services.
      Initially I like the idea of a concrete pipe under the road for major services but it would need some kind of steel grid sat on top to give access where required for new connections and the repair of leaks etc. along it’s entire length. The grid would need to be faced with a durable textured coating to give similar grip characteristics to asphalt and prevent water getting into the service tunnel.
      This system would also potentially make the re-surfacing of the road more difficult. So it’s a non starter really in my view.

      Even if services could be routed along pavements and verges they still need to cross busy roads.

  29. James Sutherland
    October 29, 2015

    Hear hear! I agree it’s high time we improved on direct-bury cables and pipes for most services.

    I know one of the biggest problems affecting our telecomms infrastructure now is the result of exactly this approach: as the gas or water company digs to find their pipe, they cut through fibre optics belonging to BT or another backbone provider, potentially cutting off thousands or even millions of customers with one misplaced pickaxe. To make matters worse, they contain no metal, so even checking beforehand with a metal detector won’t reveal their presence. One such accident, around 15 years ago now, disconnected 15 universities (Cambridge, plus nearby institutions which shared that backbone link) from the Internet for a day while repairs were made.

    Usually, the most important links are installed in pairs on different routes to guard against this, but even then it’s fairly common for people – and small businesses – to lose their connection this way.

    To fix it, of course, a contractor like Fujitsu has to come along, retrace the path of the damaged cable, then dig up and replace the damaged section. More traffic disruption, more cost – and more risk of further damage to buried services!

    I’m delighted to hear of Wokingham adopting this better approach, I hope we’ll hear feedback in the future on the results, hopefully proving it a success and motivating other councils to follow their lead?

    (I’ve suggested in the past that anyone blocking a road to traffic should pay a “road rent” for it – priced to promote closing a lane rather than a whole road, minimising the time the road is blocked, and blocking as little as possible. All too often I see roadworks sitting idle, and/or using a large fenced off area of road as free storage, rather than actually being worked on!)

  30. James Winfield
    October 29, 2015

    Where would cyclists go if the pavement was constantly being dug up?

    1. Mark
      October 29, 2015

      The roads, like they’re supposed to? Or even dedicated cycle lanes…

      I share your disdain for cyclists who like to ride on pavements (often without lights at night, and against the traffic flow should they have to divert from the pavement).

  31. ferdinand
    October 29, 2015

    I wrote a letter to I think the Times but it might have been the Telegraph in the 1970s suggesting this but it wasn’t published. I also wrote to the council and they replied that it would be too expensive to”change things now”. I hope you have more success than I did.

  32. Mike Wilson
    October 29, 2015

    Errr, I worked in the construction industry for 20 years between 1970 and 1990. On all sorts of projects – dual carriageways, housing, offices etc. The services of gas, electricity, phone and water were always under the pavement. Where they had to cross roads they were in ducts. You can’t put gas in ducts because of the potential of a build up if there is a leak.

    This is a non issue. Sewers and storm water drains are under the roads – because they are often deeper and last a very long time if laid properly.

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