WHO SAID the British worker was lazy? Over the last few weeks, an impressive array of Men In Hard Hats have dug up what feels like every single street in West Greenwich, one at a time.
No road appears too insignificant to be turned into a trench. And rather like the Jehovah’s Witnesses with new converts, no road completed is seen as simply an achievement in itself – but more as a God-given opportunity to dig up the next one.
But why are they actually doing this? Is it some sort of Doris Salcedo-style art installation? Is it MI6, still looking for those missing Iraqi WMDs, following “compelling intelligence” that Saddam Hussein secretly buried them beneath Ashburnham Grove? Nobody seems to be displaying anything as boring as a sign telling us, so on your behalf, I have tried to find out.
First stop is Greenwich Council’s exciting, interactive new streetworks database, recently launched to tell you everything you need to know about the hole-makers. This informs us that across the borough, there are currently 308 sets of roadworks – one for every five streets.
In Greenwich itself, there are currently 77 sets of roadworks (77!) of which 9 are defined as “high impact.” Some of these (like the ones that recently caused such trouble in the town centre) are the work of Southern Gas Networks, doing gas main replacement. But from the database, it looks like the people who have been digging up most of our side streets are… Greenwich Council.
Why, I still don’t know. I did ask them, naturally, but more for form’s sake than for anything else. I have long ago given up hope of getting any information out of the Greenwich Council press office, which could perhaps be replaced with an answerphone message saying “I am afraid I do not have the answer to that question” for a substantial saving of council taxpayers’ money. (Last week, they refused to tell me what they were spending on the Olympics legacy – a figure freely available from this week’s Greenwich Time.)
The other possibility, of course, is that Greenwich Council does not itself know why it is digging up our roads. This is not as implausible as it sounds. After all, so many of the council’s other actions (closure of the foot tunnel, Olympics in the park) seem to have been taken on the same basis.
What’s undeniable is that the current system for roadworks stinks. Setting aside the council, there are a large number of “statutory undertakers” – mostly water, gas, electricity and telecoms companies – who dig the majority of the holes in London’s endlessly-patched streets.
Contrary to popular belief, these companies do not have to get approval from anyone – least of all the local authority – to start work. With only a few exceptions, they have the right to dig up the roads whenever they want. They just have to give notice, and sometimes not even that in the case of work deemed “urgent” or “emergency.” There is little or nothing to stop different statutory undertakers – or even the same one – digging up the same street as soon as a previous dig has finished.
In July 2004, the Government passed the Traffic Management Act – which allowed local authorities to introduce “permit schemes” to regulate and co-ordinate roadworks. However, thanks to heavy lobbying from the utility companies, Whitehall for more than five years refused to allow local authorities to use the powers they had themselves granted. Only last month was the first permit scheme under the Act – for TfL and 18 London boroughs - finally approved by ministers. More sensible regulation of roadworks will probably be implemented only next year, a full six years after the legislation was passed.
There’s one other unfortunate fact, I’m afraid. Our borough is not among the 18 included the permit scheme (although Lewisham is, for the benefit of our more southerly readers.) Greenwich is in fact in the last wave of London councils on this issue, having not yet made up its mind when it wants a permit scheme at all.
Whether through carrying out its own mystery roadworks, or failing to regulate other people’s, Greenwich will continue to be the borough with too many holes in the road for some time to come.