Leading article: A much needed incentive to keep traffic moving

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In the list of trivial irritations that add up to a bad day, sitting in traffic is as potent as any. Even more so when the hold-up is a hole in the ground that seems to be there forever and rarely even has people working in it. So the Government's plan for local councils to charge utility companies "rents" on lanes they close deserves a toot of support from road users.

To many, the most surprising aspect of the consultation launched yesterday is that it has taken so long. City dwellers in particular are already well aware that the cost of roadworks – in time, money and aggravation – is out of hand. The Government's estimate of 1.2 million streetworks sucking £4bn out of the economy each year is merely confirmation.

While it appears self-evident that utilities should take account of the disruption they cause, local authorities have proved reluctant to turn principle into practice. Although legally possible for more than a decade, lane rental ran into the sand after just two trial schemes, in Camden and Middlesbrough, in 2004.

It is still surprisingly easy to make the case against. One of the most compelling arguments is that the pilot schemes appeared to make little difference. Another is that the cost will be passed straight through to consumers already struggling with ever-rising utility bills.

But naysayers must not be allowed to carry the day. Utilities can be encouraged to be more sparing, co-ordinated and efficient in their digging. London's permit system, for example – which requires would-be diggers to get plans cleared, and levies fines when works overrun – has saved an estimated 1,200 days of disruption since it was introduced last year.

The latest lane rental proposals are also more flexible than previous schemes, with variable rates to target hotspots and allow utilities to avoid charges by choosing to carry out work at weekends. The risk that utilities will simply pass on the costs to consumers is one the relevant regulators will have to consider.

Ultimately, the necessary impetus will likely come from local authorities – as the prospect of central government funding being slashed by more than a quarter concentrates minds on finding new sources of revenue. Britain's frustrated road users can only hope so.

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