Stop digging up the roads

One of the most mad things in the UK public sector is the continued placing of pipes and cables under main roads, often under the middle of the road. Given the weight of modern traffic the pipes need to be placed quite deep and they have to be robust to withstand the pressures. Every time a repair or replacement is needed the road has to be dug up. It either has to be closed completely, or a lane taken out to do the work. The workmen have to watch out, where traffic is maintained on a portion of the road.

I am having another push to get the government to encourage or require a new approach. Pipes and cables can be placed in conduits or larger pipes which can be placed under pavements or verges, away from the main carriageway. There can be locked access points to the cables and pipes at regular intervals, obviating the need to dig anything up again. Access to the cables and pipes can be achieved for remote devices. New pipes and cables can be threaded through from the access points and old ones removed at will.

This should be mandatory for all new housing estates, commercial developments and roads being installed. It could also be required for all replacements of existing utilities, which is a regular occurrence given the need for larger pipes and cables as demand expands for these services.

I have talked to representatives of the utilities who expressed some sympathy for this view, but not enough to persuade them to do it as a matter of routine without government instruction or encouragement. Councils too have an important role to play as the planning and highways authorities most affected by the road disruption utility works cause. The companies will also find if they adopt this customer friendly approach they will lose an important source of friction with local communities who are often critical of the delays utility works inflict.


  1. Lifelogic
    December 27, 2016

    You have to make the companies doing this work pay for the disruption they cause by closing the roads. This rarely seems to happen, if it did they would find less disruptive ways. The drivers are just collateral damage (to the people who actually pay for the roads) they do not care about them and they get no compensation and little consideration.

    One thing that happens frequently is that a road or lane is closed thus putting extra unusual flows through some later traffic lights. Yet never are these light rephrased (or often better switched off) to cope with the new flow level. Still happily letting just six cars through at every light change when the demand is now far higher. So the queue builds and builds then affect other junctions. Motorists are just cash cows to government and LEAs in general, should they stray a wheel in an empty bus lane to avoid the jam or do an illegal UTurn so much the better for the LEA mugging cameras.

  2. Lifelogic
    December 27, 2016

    You can of course tunnel under roads with tunnelling machines without needing to touch the surface. It is all about the economics. The cost of the delays caused to vehicles and drivers is rarely properly considered as it is not a real cost to the authority or companies doing the work.

    Furthermore lost of work is pointless or negative anyway. I remember about 12 to 15 years back loads of junctions in North London being disrupted to have junctions reorganised, new lights, bollards, ramps and islands. They worked far less efficiently after the expensive work than they did before. Causing vehicle C ongestion seem to be their express aim. Either that or the designer were totally incompetent.

  3. Adam II
    December 27, 2016

    A satellite dish was good. You could get stuff without digging a hole. But then came fibre optic cable. Like everything in this country, you don’t replace stuff by a new invention you merely keep the old running along with the new. Bicycles, motor bikes, cars, buses, trams, trolley buses, trains, horses. I hear some bright spark has reinvented the prefab. They have discovered that prefabricating houses in a factory….etc…etc.
    Something called the permanent shopping bag is replacing plastic bags….well no, we are going to have both.

    1. fedupsoutherner
      December 27, 2016


      Satellite for broadband was rubbish. We tried it as we couldn’t get broadband at all to begin with. Expensive and slow. We do get broadband now but really slow and often breaking down. We would love to have a fibre optic cable connection but have been told we have no chance so it’s back to running a business and doing everything on a snail’s pace computer. I would gladly put up with our road being dug up if we got a decent service from it instead of having to put up with the local farmers constantly breaking our telephone/broadband cable.

  4. The Cycle of Life
    December 27, 2016

    My Local Authority were taken aback when they discovered that planted trees in an avenue broke up pavement and roads alike. They had never experienced life as humans before, arriving on Earth as parent-less ignorant adults.
    The roots and leaves invaded drainage systems. Also, tree pruning was very expensive . They cut the trees down avoiding public dismay by exaggerating the normal fungal diseases observable. They then found the tree roots had performed the partial job which years ago they performed in greater numbers, draining the clay soil. There was subsidence to the houses. They blamed it on the National Coal Board. They got government money for it.But then they closed the mines so that was that. Now they are proposing planting avenues of trees again as soon as central government sends them another boatload of tax-payers’money to squander.
    Of course the tree roots, planted as they will be on or near the pavements and verges will get all mixed up with the cables. Resulting in pavements, roads and trees being cut down and dug up .
    The Local Authorities are hoping they can blame the damage on fracking companies and get compensation from them. It worked with the NCB. It is to be hoped the fracking companies are nationalised before that or they may just go bust and disappear failing to pay like council house building contractors. when the mortar between bricks turns out to be cheap sand without a teaspoonful of cement in it.

    1. Tony Harrison
      December 27, 2016

      Yet France’s towns and villages are filled with trees, lining the streets and providing shade in squares. Thousands of kilometers of French roads are still lined with trees. There is no particular problem noticeable.

  5. Mark B
    December 27, 2016

    Good morning.

    So long as it someone else’s money with no accountability, this will never change.

    1. Dunedin
      December 27, 2016

      @MarkB “So long as it someone else’s money with no accountability, this will never change.”

      Spot-on comment, and applicable in so many other situations.

    2. Lifelogic
      December 27, 2016

      The only people who are remotely accountable to the public and who should ensure the public get the services they pay for are Mps but an elections once every five years for the least bad option is no real democratic control at all.

      1. hefner
        December 28, 2016

        Not if people keep asking for a decreasing state in which neither the MPs nor the civil servants will be willing to consider their duty to properly monitor the behaviour of companies. And do not expect “democratic control” from shareholders as long as any decision even voted by them in general assemblies will only remain consultative.

  6. TinTank
    December 27, 2016

    The Councils’ trained maintenance officers were made redundant in great numbers. This was also true within housing ALMOs when they were set up along with other devices allowing bits of housing departments borrowing rights on the open market and have the audacity to give tenants’ rent money to charities that one or two Councillors favoured, for whatever reason.
    This meant in practice a tremendous amount of human stored knowledge and files of street and housing underground activity lost forever.

    To depend year in , year out, on someone remaining in employment ( and caring enough ) remembering which particular streets have conduits or merely concealed cables beneath verges and pavements or having the markers kept observable is asking for the impossible. Local Authorities don’t even know certain streets exist and where they are. For them to know there are cables there and where they are..well one may as well go and ask a lump of sandstone the winning race at Epsom in the 2.30. They are beyond incompetent.

  7. agricola
    December 27, 2016

    Create a standard size access conduit/pipe of around eight feet diameter. While you can thread new wires for power, and communication in much smaller diameters you need physical access for sewage, water and gas. It may need to be even larger on main trunk routes, and as you say they should run where they do not interfere with traffic flow. Do not resurface our existing appalling roads until such time as this conduiting is in place. Long term it could be the most cost effective piece of infrastructure investment we could undertake. The work needs to be undertaken on a continuous basis of three eight hour shifts, with the level of planning needed to move the fuselage of a jumbo jet down the high street. If left to local authorities you will end up with the multi coloured waste bins that masquerade as an environment friendly waste disposal system, every authority different.

  8. The Prangwizard
    December 27, 2016

    I have witnessed the suggested sensible occasional use of the road verges where I live (middle of nowhere). I think it was BT. The main problem is that the verges are not wide enough or don’t exist at all. Where they do they are often overgrown with tree and scrub and are pretty much invisible as such. Decades of neglect. This is also a safety risk too and leads also to avoidable weather damage to the road surface when there is almost permanent shade.

    Trees and scrub should be cleared where it exists and a plan implemented to create at least 15 feet of verge on each side of every road which should be kept free of scrub. Land should be acquired. Squeals of horror, impossible! We can’t afford it etc., from the vested interrsts. So I ask what is your alternative to our slipping further into third world status?

  9. Peter Wood
    December 27, 2016

    This falls into the category of the ‘bleedin’ obvious’ : When building a road, any road, there should also be alongside it a pedestrian walkway ( and if space allows a cycle path) under-which is the conduit for all the necessary services. If the pedestrian walkway is wide enough, say for 3 walking abreast, it would allow sufficient space for servicing the lines without disturbing traffic.. If Singapore can do it, (mostly) with their limited space, why can’t we.

  10. Bert Young
    December 27, 2016

    Excavating roads ought to be avoided ; the chaos created to traffic is very bad . County Councils who are responsible seem to have no system of priority or effective planning . A few years ago between where I live and Oxford the main road was re-surfaced for 2 miles ; within a month part of it was dug up to accomodate a new drain . This ought to have been avoided and , as far as I know , no-one was called to account .

  11. Edward2
    December 27, 2016

    Near me we have congestion caused by lane closures several miles before the place the road works are actually happening.
    And greatly reduced speed limits miles before them too.
    And 24/7 despite the work only being carried out weekdays for 8 hours a day

    1. Graham
      December 28, 2016

      We have a stretch on the M180 near Scunthorpe.

      Haven’t seen the ghost of a workman or his tools for weeks but the lanes (50mph) are being closed to ‘protect the workforce’. No wonder drivers ignore the speed warnings after the first few weeks.

      One must query the mental capacity of these planners.

  12. Antisthenes
    December 27, 2016

    Utilities companies must have cost incentive to prefer to site their services in the middle of roads. I suspect it easier for machines to work where there is no restriction to access. So laying them under pavements and verges is not attractive for them. The answer is to make it attractive to them. Either by councils charging them a disruptive traffic fee or paying them to lay them elsewhere. The former more likely to be the most efficient method as to avoid passing the cost onto their customers and thereby avoid annoying them they will find innovative ways to lay them where they are the least intrusive. The latter would annoy the taxpayer and is a statist solution which we have so many of them already all of which are liked by politicians and the public sector but do little for consumers.

  13. Elaine Turner
    December 27, 2016

    Whilst we are at it, isn’t there a case to be made for burying the main electricity cables that are carried on pylons and that are brought down in high winds and heavy snow – thus denying us the use of electricity when we most need it, in inclement weather?

  14. BobE
    December 27, 2016

    There is a problem that if you make cabling easily accessible then it will be stolen.

    1. libertarian
      December 28, 2016


      True but theres not much point in stealing fibre optic cable, as no real market for it. Good luck with stealing electricity cables…. So it may well be an incentive for BT/Openreach to stop the statistical manipulation of targets by claiming fibre coverage when in fact its only FTTC , they would have an incentive to fibre to the home.

  15. hefner
    December 27, 2016

    To me, that sounds like a very biased title to what is a real problem even when the following proposal seems to be a reasonable solution.

    But, has JR really looked at the logos of those companies digging for pipes, road improvements, etc. They are all private companies working for contracts with local or regional authorities. Why are such private companies allowed to announce a week’s worth of road blocking when the actual work on-site can be as short as one or two days? So the problem might be more with a lack of power by the relevant authorities to properly monitor these private companies. What type of fines, if any, is applied for delay in carrying the announced work? (In that respect, unfortunately, I am not looking forward to the “smartering” of the M4 in Reading. )

    This story might not allow for such a catchy title, certain to call up all disgruntled people.
    Isn’t the present title a “nice” way to manipulate potential voters?

    1. libertarian
      December 28, 2016


      Are you sure? I think you need to do some better research/join us in the 21st century.

      All utilities are provided by private companies, not local authorities.

      You might like to check who it is that sets the planning licences and terms for access to dig up the carriage way . As an example I wished to have my home connected to mains drainage as the main sewer runs under the road past my front gate. The water company wanted £45,000 to do the job. £15k to supply pipe, lay and connect £30k to local authorities for licences, planning and traffic control measures over a fixed mandated period of time.

      1. hefner
        December 28, 2016

        Thanks for putting me right. In that case, if private companies can practically do whatever they want, and local authorities make a mint at distributing licences and the likes, who at the local, regional or national levels has any authority to obtain redress for the common people suffering from this type of badly executed work? Do I have to hope that “market forces” will at the end make things right. Funnily enough, I doubt it very much.

  16. dave
    December 27, 2016

    John .. What you write is basic common sense and many of us have been advocating putting , where possible, services beneath pavements instead of roads. However as we ALL know when it comes to common sense you won’t find much in your Local Govt. offices . The position seems to be to shy away from any suggestion of doing things better in case it could possibly lead to a reduction in staff numbers and we can’t have that can we.

  17. ian
    December 27, 2016

    That about sums party governments up, to busy talking about overseas while nothing get done hear in the UK, internet service that government give money to each year from 1998 for a better service and the service is not much better, mobile phones more money poor service in some parts of the UK still, like john says road, rail, billions each year not much improvement, on these services northern europe is way out in front of the UK and the government keep saying we have the best service in the world, they talk shit.

  18. English Pensioner
    December 27, 2016

    In that the existing cables and pipes are likely to be there for at least another century, one can only adopt your sensible ideas in respect of new construction and so we need to fix the current situation.
    My main grouse about the present activities by the utilities is the time they take to do a job and the fact that the often seem to be digging up the same place that they had dug up just a few weeks previously; why? Didn’t they do the job properly the first time?
    We need a system that forces the utilities to work 24/7 until the problem is fixed, not just 10-4 with no weekend work.
    We also need better liaison between the Councils and the utility companies. A friend of mine discovered that gas main along a busy road locally was due to be renewed in about six months time; he also knew that the County Council was due to start resurfacing the road in a couple of weeks. Neither party seemed interested in changing things until he made it clear that if the road works started before the new pipe was laid there would be headlines in the local paper.
    Surely we can improve the present systems!

  19. PaulDirac
    December 27, 2016

    The worst offenders are NON emergency work. No sooner has a utility or council closed up a road, then some other joker opens it again.
    Also the repairs patches are the weakest and usually deteriorate quite fast, requiring, yes, more road closure and repair.

    There should be a schedule of work for any road, where no permission is given for non emergency work for a year after the previous “work window” is closed.
    Also, contractors should be liable (with huge fines) for road repairs going bad, including drain coverage and other such which are not flush with the road surface.

  20. acorn
    December 27, 2016

    Sadly JR, it’s never going to happen. The disruption to get rid of the current disruption would be a political minefield. We would be having planning enquiries by the million, lasting decades. Then, when the work starts, a rare breed of slugs will get dug up and work will stop for a few years. Plus, in the UK, everybody objects to everything nowadays; particularly, if they think somebody else is getting something for nothing.

    1. hefner
      December 27, 2016

      Acorn, don’t tell that. You are starting depicting the British even worse than the French. (I’ve just finished 1000 years of annoying the French, updated edition, which might explain my comment).

  21. Iain Gill
    December 28, 2016

    In the same way all new telco cables laid should be optical fibre and not copper. Most of the cost is in digging up the road not the cable, it is crazy laying new build copper in this day and age.

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