Councils are to be encouraged to declare war on gas, electricity or water companies who infuriate motorists by digging up busy roads in rush hour.

The initiative by Transport Secretary Philip Hammond is the second attempt in a decade to make the utilities think twice before they cause rush- hour traffic queues. Mr Hammond proposes to allow councils to charge the utilities "rent" during the rush hour, which means they could save money by doing work when roads are less busy, for instance at night.

When John Major became Prime Minister 20 years ago, he promised a war on traffic cones, and set up a hotline so that motorists could ring in when they spotted roads that were closed when no one was working.

He pushed through legislation in 1991 to enable councils to charge "rent" on busy roads. But nothing came of it until the Labour government launched pilot schemes in Camden and Middlesbrough, nearly 10 years ago. They were not followed up, and the 1991 Act has been superseded by so much other legislation it is effectively inoperable.

Mr Hammond is hoping that this time councils will show more enthusiasm about helping frustrated drivers. He has promised they can keep any money they raise through road rents, rather than surrender the proceeds to the Treasury – but they must spend it on road improvement schemes or research into improving traffic flow.

"Everyone knows how frustrating it can be when you are sat in a traffic jam, unable to get to work or drop off the children at school because someone is digging up the road," he said.

"This disruption is expensive as well as inconvenient, with one estimate valuing the loss to the economy from road works congestion at £4billion a year. We simply cannot afford this. That is why I am putting forward proposals which would incentivise utility companies and local authorities to carry out their works at times when they will cause the minimum disruption."

However, the draft guidance published today by the Department of Transport carries a warning that lane rental charges have to be "avoidable and proportionate to the costs of congestion." And councils aiming to charge lane rental must get approval from the Secretary of State.

It also suggests that if councils are going to charge utility companies for causing traffic jams, they should apply the same rules to their own staff when they are out mending potholes or doing other work that involves shutting off part of a road.

The department is also thinking of running experimental schemes, one in a city and one in a rural area, to test how effective they are, as the Labour government did in 2002 and 2004.

Roadworks in numbers

* Approximately 2.5 million trenches were dug in 2010 for utility work to be carried out.

* Forty-five per cent of people would rate utility companies' communication as "poor" in explaining the steps they are taking to maintain their networks.

* Ninety-four per cent of people say they are willing to accept the inconvenience of road works that help to maintain energy and water supplies.

* Deep trenches can weaken the structure of the road in which they are placed, shortening its life by 30 per cent or more.

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