If you drove along Dyke Road Avenue recently, you may have found yourself in a traffic jam as they were digging up the road. That was my fault. Sorry about that.
What’s worse is that next month we’re going to dig it up another couple of times to do the exact same thing.
I’ll tell you why and you probably won’t even be that surprised. Which tells you what a mess this country is in when it comes to building.
A fair while back I ran a construction company, which I mentioned previously. I still wake up shivering in the night as a result. It’s not just because I can’t get the replacement part I need for my boiler.
Running a construction business is not fun and the primary reason I “got out” – and you really can think of it in those terms – was because I was constantly at the mercy of subcontractors and, worse, much worse … utility suppliers.
For the uninitiated, let me explain what it takes to have a house connected to the basic utilities.
Electric – UK Power Networks own the cabling. You apply to them. They provide you with a price, most of which is “non contestable” – in short, they can charge you whatever they want. You pay it ALL in advance. You instal the ducting on your land, feed a cable through it to the boundary and wait for them to turn up. Wait a bit more. Keep waiting. Then they connect it and then you have to get another firm to supply the meter and enter into a contract with them. Any deviation from that and it’ll go on forever.
Water – down here it’s Southern Water. You apply and they price it. You can’t go anywhere else. You pay it all, yes, in advance again. Then you open up a trench on your land which they inspect. Then they lay all the pipework and supply the meter.
Gas is pretty much the same as the water and telecoms tends to be Open Reach, who used to be BT. All are similar but just different enough to trip you up every now and then.
So, other than always paying in advance and having little or no choice of any alternate supplier, what are the issues and why am I digging up Dyke Road Avenue three times in short order?
Well, let me give you some examples. UK Power Networks are running out of capacity in the network. That means that one extra house might need a whole new substation or a mile of new cable in the street.
The first quote to connect the two houses that we are building was £80,000. To get that down to a reasonable price we had to reduce the amount of electricity supplied (measured in kVa) that we thought we’d need.
But UKPN wouldn’t say that the cable was good for 100kVa so we could have that much and it would be a far reduced cost.
Instead, we had to apply for 200kVa which was still expensive, then 180kVa – no change – then 150kVa, and so on, until finally it turned out that 110kVa would “only” be about £20,000 and we went for it.
Each time we applied it took six to eight weeks for them to re-price it. I just can’t understand why they couldn’t say in the first place: “Can you make do with 110kVa?”
Then there is the general incompetence. I built a house in Roedean for a client many years ago. It was the only house in the street at the time and there was no cable directly outside so it needed a new pole and about 100m of cable overhead.
Open Reach sent an engineer just to connect the house from the (non-existent) existing street cable 11 times in a row. The same bloke came seven of those times – he was so embarrassed. It took six months to get a phone line.
One of the biggest problems is a lack of accountability. These suppliers have a monopoly. They charge what they want, in advance.
No private company could survive offering the pathetic level of service they provide and they don’t even offer a specific manager for each job. Instead, files enter a national system and are picked by the next agent, anywhere in the country.
Every time you ring or email, it is someone new, someone who has to read the notes fresh every time and who, if they get it wrong, just blames someone else. Which they do, all the time.
And why, you might ask, does any of this mean that Dyke Road Avenue and other roads like it need to be dug up three times or more for one development?
Good question. After all, what we are doing is installing a water supply and an electric supply (no gas here) plus connecting the drainage all from the same “point A” to the same “point B”.
Surely, they could all go in the same trench, together? Well, no. For insurance reasons, no supplier will share its trench with any other.
So instead, we will be digging up the road, installing electric, filling it back in, then digging it up again, installing water, then filling it back in and repeat one more time for the drainage.
Not only does this massively inconvenience seemingly half of Brighton as they head to and from work, it costs three times as much, makes the road full of patches and takes endless negotiation, organisation and additional time on site as the access road is virtually closed each time.
Surely there must be a better way? On this job we had an approved independent company that should have been able to manage it all.
But Southern Water discount their connection so the private company wouldn’t match it and UKPN wanted a quick instal so we couldn’t get the drainage in at the same time as that and hey presto – we’re digging up the road three times. That happens a lot.
Does any of this surprise you? When HS2 went from £20 billion to £100 billion, did anyone not see that coming? Maybe every country has these same issues? Well, no. We spend 8 to 10 times as much on infrastructure projects as they do in continental Europe.
The UK government spent £250 million on a new tunnel under the Thames recently. You won’t be driving through it though because all the £250 million got the UK taxpayer was a load of surveyor’s reports.
The government gave up before even turning a spade. Anywhere else in Europe the whole thing could have been done and finished for that price.
There are answers. Allowing private firms to price, manage and undertake all the connections at once would be a game changer for utilities.
Reducing the environmental reporting on larger infrastructure would be huge – HS2’s environmental report was over 50,000 pages.
A wider part of the problem on the bigger projects, which I appreciate I haven’t really touched on in the above, could be solved by smoother transition between governments.
If the next government, whoever they might be, really do want to get things built then it’s going to take a lot more than target number of houses and simple determination on camera.
Construction needs sorting out at every level, rules need changing, apprentices need teaching and we need to start at the bottom – dare I say it – in the trenches.
Ed Deedman is a director of Cayuga Homes.