There are an estimated four million kilometres of buried pipes and cables in the UK, with a new hole dug every seven seconds to enable the installation, maintenance or repair of assets that are critical to water, gas, electricity or telecommunication networks.
To ensure a consistent and interactive view of these, the first phase of the National Underground Asset Register (NUAR) was launched by the Geospatial Commission in April this year, and is now live in North East England, Wales and London.
The register is set to become a vital tool, helping to improve the safety of anyone carrying out excavation by supporting coordination and management of works, providing professionals with a cutting-edge technical platform, promoting best practice and reducing costs.
The first release of the new service, known as the minimum viable product, holds detailed information about the location and characteristics of these underground networks.
It includes data for all major energy and water providers in the regions covered, including Northumbrian Water, Wales and West Utilities, Southern Electric Power Distribution and National Grid, as well as smaller providers, telecommunications companies, transport organisations and local authorities.
Once fully operational, NUAR is envisioned to deliver at least £350m of economic growth each year through increased efficiency, a reduction in accidental damage to assets, and fewer disruptions for citizens and businesses. It will also expedite projects such as new roads and houses, and broadband roll-out.
The first phase contains the initial versions of features designed to enable workers to plan and carry out excavations safely and efficiently, as well as comprehensive security controls to ensure that data is protected while allowing access to appropriate professionals.
Functionality includes an interactive map so that each asset and site displayed can be selected and queried to view detailed attribute information. It also allows owners to view their respective assets or those of another organisation in isolation. When sharing data, asset owners can also flag assets and sites as sensitive and attach enhanced measures to let users know about special guidance or contact requirements.
Currently, there are more than 700 public and private organisations that hold data about their own assets. They are required by law to share this information when excavations are being carried out for the purposes of safe digging but all do so in different ways.
This means that any organisation planning or carrying out an excavation has to contact multiple organisations for information, which is provided in various formats, scales, quality and on different timelines, resulting in complex and resource-intensive processes. NUAR is addressing this by providing a single source of information, streamlining processes and saving costs.
© Geospatial Commission
The Geospatial Commission is also considering whether to expand access to other user groups such as surveyors, as well as expanding permitted use cases beyond excavation planning and safe digging, for example, coordinating street works, assisting in planning projects and supporting climate action.
A public consultation held in 2022 found that 75% of respondents wanted NUAR data to be accessible for other uses. The Geospatial Commission has committed to considering these opportunities and will be doing so in collaboration with owners of underground assets who own and are responsible for the data as well as other interested parties.
Although surveyors may have access to the platform as part of an asset owner's supply chain, if the use cases with access are extended this will provide the profession with a consistent and interactive view of underground assets. NUAR could become a critical tool in the initial planning process. By enabling surveyors and planners to understand the complex networks in the ground, NUAR would make their work more effective and efficient. This will allow organisations to optimise work and reduce the time spent on site.
The data in the platform is also regularly updated to ensure end users have the most up-to-date information. This ensures users know about any changes in the underground infrastructure, in turn helping keep projects on track. As the data in the platform is standardised, this will also increase the clarity on assets and help to reduce misunderstandings.
One of the main benefits of NUAR is that it will improve safety. It can be dangerous if excavators do not know where underground assets are located, so by offering a digital visualisation of what's below the surface NUAR will help prevent accidents and reduce downtime on site.
However, it should be noted that in line with existing practices around statutory records, NUAR will never replace requirements for ground investigation and safe digging practices as outlined in the Health and Safety Executive's Avoiding danger from underground services.
Worker using the NUAR. © Northumbrian Water
This first phase is a key stage in the design and development of NUAR, and the feedback from users will allow the team behind it to refine the platform's functionality in preparation for full business use.
If you work for or on behalf of a utility provider or public sector-body in Wales, the North East or London that is already signed up, you can access NUAR now. Access can be arranged by contacting our service desk to identify your designated system administrator. Those working for providers or public-sector bodies not yet signed up should encourage them to do so and supply their data at the earliest opportunity.