Cable firms must pay for roads in ruins

NTL and Telewest face billion-pound bills for shoddy work under thousands of miles of streets
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The Independent Online

The two giant cable companies, NTL and Telewest, are facing bills running into billions of pounds because of the shoddy laying of TV cables.

The two giant cable companies, NTL and Telewest, are facing bills running into billions of pounds because of the shoddy laying of TV cables.

The hidden threat underneath Britain's roads and pavements is the legacy of the 1990s cable TV boom when thousands of miles of Britain's streets were dug up at frenetic pace by sub-contracted gangs of builders.

Telewest, NTL and its recently purchased subsidiary, CWC Communications, are already engaged in remedial work at scores of locations, where local councils have called them back to lay again road surfaces damaged by earlier digging.

Under existing legislation, responsibility for roadworks rests with the the utility companies for two years after the road is dug up and then reverts to the local authority.

But a recent landmark ruling, which followed a long-running row between BT and Nottinghamshire County Council, means that utilities can be held responsible indefinitely if it is proved that the work was not done properly.

Roger Khann, assistant director responsible for highways at the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, said shoddy workmanship carried out in the mid-to-late 1990s has left the cable companies and other utilities with massive potential bills as roads across Britain begin to crack up through water damage.

"The potential latent liability for utility companies runs into billions. What we are seeing at the moment is a lot of trenches moving differentially to the road surface, and you can see cracks all over the place."

Hammersmith is currently carrying out tests on recently completed roadworks in the borough, which are likely to show that most of the work does not meet specifications. Elsewhere cable companies are being hit by claims arising from sub-standard work.

Kirklees Council is currently negotiating with NTL to decide who will pay an estimated £1m repair bill for botched work carried out by Cardiff-based contractor M&N Contractors, which collapsed last year leaving £10m in debts. M&N was one of at least five major cable construction companies that have collapsed over the last year, leaving the cable TV companies they worked for to pick up the tab for road repairs.

There is also major remedial work being carried out in the Nottinghamshire area. An insider at Notts County Council said: "The main franchise holder is engaged in an extensive programme of remedial works, which are well past the guarantee date. This all goes back to the gung-ho days of the cable boom when it was all about 'get in the ground, and what's next lads?'

Councils now fear the mistakes of the 1990s will be repeated by the new generation of industry-oriented cable installation. Several major trunk networks are currently under construction that will loop around the country connecting businesses to BT exchanges.

The big cable companies are keen to downplay the extent of remedial works currently under way.

A construction manager at CWC, who did not want to be named, said: "We do have remedial work that is ongoing, but no more than you would expect based on the volume of work completed. We hold retentions in cash for the majority of contracts. Whether they will be sufficient in the long term is difficult to say."