Pipe dream

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How many holes does it take to fill the streets of London?

How many holes does it take to fill the streets of London? Answer: 500,000 each year. That's how many times the streets of the capital city are dug up by utility companies laying new phone, electricity and pipe lines and repairing old ones. It is not an unfamiliar sight anywhere in Britain to see a road dug up by one company, repaired – and then promptly dug up by another. Other than being a more effective device to slow down traffic than even a brightly painted speed camera, the upheaval caused by these subterranean roadworks is a nuisance estimated to cost £2bn a year in delays, accidents and road damage.

Now a solution is at hand: local councils are to be permitted (on a trial basis) to charge companies a "lane rental" fee of £500 per day for digging up roads and pavements. The thinking is that this inducement to finish up quickly will both reduce the total time for each job and provide revenue for other local transport schemes. But the problem with wheezes like this is that they tend to create "perverse" incentives. This one might turn out to be just an excuse to get the regulator to raise the bills, justified by taking more time than ever to finish the job. One thing is sure, however, the customer will pay in the end.

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