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How transport chiefs sold us short

ROADS AND BRIDGES - In July the Government nally published its new 10-year regional transport plans. Stephanie Hendries takes a look at what the new plans will mean for the industry and what effect they will have on the future of road building

THE ROAD building indust ry is set to change. Over the past few years contractors have already had to deal with the Government abandoning its 10-year plan for transport and the rise of regional transport plans, but the real problem for those in civil engineering has been the number of road schemes actually getting approved and coming out to the market.

And the decisions on which new road schemes will get built seem to take longer and longer.

With the Highways Agency budgets said to be increasing year on year, contractors are meant to be dealing with a record workload, but is this really the case? Do the initiatives originally indicated in the 10-year plan bear any resemblance to those issued under the regional transport plans?

Perhaps most importantly, how will these regional plans affect the future of the industry?

The process of approving a road scheme has never been easy.

The Stonehenge tunnel project made headlines last year when costs doubled and the scheme looked set to be scrapped. Even a year later the project is still going through a very slow public review. All major road schemes have to rely on a decisionmak ing process that goes from national level, to local level, then back to national level and is both time-consuming and costly.

In 2004 the Government sought to change all th is with the Planning and Compulsory Pu rchase Act. Th is outlined the need for a regional transport strategy that would allow local authorities the power to make decisions on transport schemes in their areas.

There would be eight regions, each of which would assess the local needs and publish a programme of spending on specific transport schemes. Most of the areas simply did not have the time or the resources to set up Regional Transport Boards so they simply amalgamated them into the existing regional assembly.

Each region would have to have to subm it a priority list of schemes for approval in January 2006 and the final decisions would be announced by the Department for Transport in July.

Many contractors said it was simply a way of getting the regions to do the DfT's dirty work.

One industry insider says: 'The buck always stops with the DfT, so when it comes down to it, the regions don't really have any power.'

These priority lists outlined the regions' plans for the period 2005-06 to 2015-16, so essentially they constituted a 10-year plan but, with most areas having only 25 schemes (some even fewer) on their list, this represented a huge cull of projects.

A spokesman for the Civil Engineering Contractors Association says: 'We have gone from having a national 10-year plan to simply having a statement of intent.'

The recently published Highways Agency business plan revealed that its road building budget had been increased from £589 million in 2005-06 to £1,046 million in 2006-07. This figure indicates that, despite moves to plough more money into public transport, the Government is also spending more and more on road building.

Contractors have a somewhat different idea about this.

One contractor says: 'I think road building is reaching the end of its life; today I see less and less schemes coming out to the market. Taxing people back to a horse and cart is not the answer. I think our industry will be in real trouble in the next 10 years.'

The Highways Agency has already announced plans to cut back road widening projects by simply using the hard shoulder of motorways instead of building an extra lane. Contractors have described this as yet another way of cutting costs.

So what happens when a road job is cut from the list?

Several schemes will simply be abandoned, while the majority of road jobs will find their way onto other lists, simply to remain clogged up by the overwhelm ing bu reaucrat ic process.

Alan Stilwell, chairman of the transport board at the Institution of Civil Engineers, says: 'I don't think anyone knows what will happen to a road scheme that has been shelved.'

Many of the original schemes on the 10-year plan might therefore never be built and now the new regional '10-year plans' might experience much the same problem. A road job approved regionally and by the Department for Transport this July could still fall by the wayside if it has not been sufficiently worked up by 2015-16 when the next lot of regional advice needs to be handed to Government.

The problem is the regions do not have any real power and many simply do not have the time or resources to, as one contractor put it, 'carry out the DfT's job for them'.

Lesley Van Dijk, spokeswoman for the South East Regional Assembly, says: 'The south-east was the only area to issue a fiveyear plan, and this was simply because we didn't have time to assess all the schemes and draw up a 10-year plan by the January deadline.

'Now, from our meetings over the past few months, we can draw up a more comprehensive plan and have a better idea about which schemes should go ahead.'

When deputy pr ime m inister John Prescott originally launched his 10-year plan under the Transport 2010 initiative he spoke of congestion-free roads with spending, both local and national, totalling over £59 billion. He also spoke of widening 360 miles of motorway on national strategic routes.

The DfT is simply mak ing prom ises it can't keep.

Improvements to ease congested roads are still in their infancy, the road building industry seems to have slowed down, and the latest announcement by the Highways Agency to use the hard shoulder of a motorway has simply angered contractors already annoyed by the culling of major road schemes that are getting filtered through the regional transport plans.

The DfT declined to comment on what will happen to particular road schemes, but released a statement following the regional transport programme announcements in July.

Transport minister Gillian Merron said: 'The Government is investing record amounts in transport, putting right decades of underinvestment.

'By giving regions a long-term funding guideline and involving them in the decision-making process, we have for the first time given them a bigger say in which transport schemes are delivered locally. Having considered their advice, I'm pleased we have been able to broadly accept it.'

The idea to devolve power to the regions on transport initiatives is relatively new and certainly the process has never been properly tested. The next 10-year plan is set to be issued in 2015 and it seems the industry will be waiting with bated breath until then.

SCHEMES THAT HAD THEIR FUNDING DROPPED Scheme: Wigan Inner Relief Road Funding: £12 ion Funded by: Wigan Council Region: North West Region Scheme: A483 -Llanymynech bypass Funding: £42 ion Funded by: Highways Agency Region: West and on Scheme: A30 Carland Cross Funding: £125 ion Funded by: Highways Agency Region: South West Region Scheme: A30 ple Higher improvement Funding: £41 lion Funded by: Highways Agency Region: South Region Scheme: A1 dualling at Morpeth to Felton Funding: £84 on Funded by: Highways Agency Region: North East Region Scheme: A1 dualling at Adderstone Funding: £14 on Funded by: Highways Agency Region: North n Scheme: A64 Rillington bypass Funding: £15 n Funded by: Highways Agency Region: Yorkshire Humberside