How we can stop utilities firms from scarring our streets

We’ve all seen street scars: the freshly laid paving, setts or Yorkstones; lovingly placed on a slow street or besides a freshly repaired parade of shops. Within months, weeks or days, a slice or a square of them are pulled up thoughtlessly, cracked, smashed and discarded, replaced by a scar of tarmac which lingers for months or years or forever and which seems to laugh at any neighbourhood desire to live in a place with self-worth.

‘I am from nowhere,’ they say. ‘I serve the needs of a nameless, placeless corporation. I don’t care about your neighbourhood. Your local aspirations are petty.’

The key reason street scars happen is statutory failure. Section 70(4) of the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991 only requires utility firms (who have the right to dig up the road) to replace ‘like-for-like’ within six months. And it only gives councils the right to fine them £2,500 if they don’t. This is clearly monstrously insufficient for the size of the firms involved. Nor is it working – as any street inspection will tell you.

Guidance also gives far too much wriggle room for shoddy and uncaring work. The Specification for the Reinstatement of Openings in Highways says that the permanent reinstatement of the street should be ‘as considered appropriate for the circumstances in the opinion of the undertaker.’ The utilities firms are being allowed to mark their own homework with predictable results.

A culture has therefore grown up of utility firms just not caring. Most clearly use processes unbothered by the quality of their work or its harm to the streetscape. Their brand is rarely associated with the damage done, so ‘cheap as chips’ work is best. Frequently, it should be perfectly possible to relay stones but they just don’t bother. In Cleveland Street in west London, Yorkstones were broken and ‘fixed up’ with concrete at least two years ago.

Utility firms have six months to repair their damage and face risibly small fines for non-compliance

The result is a degradation of our public realm. It is careless and needlessly impoverishing of our neighbourhoods. Some problems are hard to resolve. The good news is that street scars can be cured.

Create Streets’ latest report, Street Scar, outlines six practical proposals in detail to heal our public realm. Above all, we need to amend the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991 so that utility firms with the rights to dig up the road (known as ‘statutory undertakers’ in the jargon) have at most three months – ideally less – before they must have made a permanent ‘like-for-like’ reinstatement.

Fines should be increased from the paltry and ineffective current £2,500 maximum. One option would be an index-linked £5,000 per month (or more) for the first three months and £10,000 per month (or more) thereafter. After three months, the council could do the work themselves imposing costs and an additional fine on the utilities firm. Another option would be to increase the maximum fine for failure to either £20,000 or to no upper limit. Street Scar also suggests detailed changes to regulation and guidance.

Might this all be a distraction from other more important matters? Emphatically not.

People really care about how their local high streets and town centres look. Their physical degradation upsets them and reduces confidence in society, the state and the future. A 2021 poll revealed that physical degradation of streets and buildings was a major detractor from ‘local pride’ and that people cared about this.

This is also a way to improve Britain without needing to raise taxes. The cost of any fines would fall upon utilities firms. If they manage their workflow better, they should be able to minimise the additional costs.

Finally, this is a way to ‘level up’ Britain as many poorer councils are least able to enforce the law. Councils in high land value areas such as London receive large Section 106 payments and more income. These proposals would create self-funding mechanisms for councils in less prosperous neighbourhoods to do likewise.

The 1991 legislation leaves councils 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. We should fix this. And we can.

Nicholas Boys Smith is the founder and chairman of Create Streets. Street Scar is published by Create Streets and you can sign a petition here to support it .