Goodbye road diggers, hello fully certified highway technicians

The men with drills now need special qualifications. John Gilbert finds out where they go to school
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The list of subjects in which Britain offers formal academic qualification has long included many less common ones, from aquaculture to yacht manufacture, but never, until now, digging holes in the road.

Not a music-hall joke, this: not only has the qualification arrived, but so has the special school for road-hole-digging which awards it.

Stephen Fisher and Derek Webb's Utilities Training (Northern) Ltd of Wakefield, Yorkshire, will charge you pounds 450 to qualify for a piece of paper without which, from next year, your hole in the road will not get dug.

A change is coming in the great tradition of tearing up the Tarmac and, in the process, chopping electricity cables, fracturing gas and water pipes, severing telephone lines, and leaving behind a road surface so corrugated it's guaranteed to break an axle or sabotage a suspension.

From August next year, any road or street works gang, whether they are digging a crater in the M1 or gouging a small hole in some suburban street, will have to have a qualified supervisor among their number: specifically, someone who holds City and Guilds certificate 6156. If no one has the ticket the work must cease immediately and the gang's leader, or their employers, will face prosecution.

It is all being done under the Roads and Streetworks Act 1991 for which motorists and harassed households can thank erstwhile Transport minister Linda (now Baroness) Chalker.

One problem, however, is that at a rough estimate there are 50,000 men in the country who will need such a certificate and as yet very few places where they can undergo training to acquire one. Stephen Fisher, a highways technician, and Derek Webb his business partner have seen the opportunity and sunk pounds 30,000 into it.

Utilities Training (Northern) Ltd sits in the disused complex of what used to be a mining engineering company. It has the essential teaching tool: a specially built 40 metres of Tarmac road, going nowhere.

It is offering a one-week, pounds 450 course, after which a qualified supervisor's ticket is awarded. Holders will be listed on a national register.

"From August next year it'll be illegal to dig a hole, any hole, in a public highway without having at least one member of the gang properly qualified," says Mr Fisher, who has spent 30 years working for major contractors and latterly for the South Yorkshire County Council.

"Lynda Chalker started this ball rolling in 1985 when she commissioned a survey of the condition of public highways, their current state and ways of improving matters. The result was the 1991 Act, the last part of which, concerning the certification of supervisors, comes on stream next year."

The difficulty is that road gangs, by their very nature, have never before had to confront a necessity for formalised training.

"It's not just a popular myth or a matter of popular prejudice," says Mr Fisher. "The lads on street-works gangs are mostly Irish or second and third-generation expatriates. They've always learnt their trade on the job from their fathers. By and large they're grand hard-working lads.

"There have been some real disaster stories in the past and we've all heard them: whole streets and areas having their electricity and water supplies cut off for days because someone's stuck a pick in the wrong place, mechanical diggers dragging up television and telephone cables, road works and logjam city-centre streets at rush hour.

"There's no doubt that something had to be done. The trouble was that everyone, from the big companies like McAlpines down through British Telecom to the water, gas and electricity utilities have always traditionally used sub-contracted labour. Often just an ad hoc gang with their own lorry, a few shovels and a drill."

Before the Act came into force, local highways authorities meekly gave the go-ahead for work to start and expected the road gangs to lay a temporary surface when they had finished. The highways authority was responsible for re-laying a permanent road later. Now the onus is on the company doing excavations to leave the road as they found it.

So far Utilities Training has processed 70 candidates. The trainees spend half a week in the classroom learning how to plan a project, how to read engineering drawings, and how to set up traffic lights and cones. They then move outside to the 40-metre road for the spadework.

Over the next year it is expected the road will be dug up and re-filled scores of times until it is finally beyond repair, when a new road will be built.

Thus far, potential road-gang supervisors have not been rushing to sign up for the course. "That's just the nature of the industry," says finance director Derek Webb. "The lads who work on the gangs earn good money - up to pounds 1,000 a week. We know they'll put off the training until it's absolutely necessary. Then there'll be a rush to get on a course."

Utility Training has signed up three full-time instructors and will be recruiting the services of three more. Going full tilt, it will be able to take 50 candidates a week. It hopes to open another training unit soon, in Nottingham.

"I think the new regulations will improve matters in the long run," says Stephen Fisher.

"But one thing won't change. I'm a cynic and a realist. And I know the public will still think they've got a right to moan and whinge whenever they see a road gang at work. That's just life."