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Stonehenge row over cost excuse

Incredulous contractors condemn Highways Agency over rising price of tunnelling

FURIOUS contractors are up in arms over the Government's decision to shelve the £470 million Stonehenge tunnel.

Industry experts have condemned roads minister Stephen Ladyman's reasons for reviewing the scheme as 'excuses' Mr Ladyman announced a review last week on the project, which includes a 2.1 km-long bored tunnel and improvements to the A303.

This followed the revelation that projected costs had increased by £186 million to £470 million following detailed site investigation work by the Highways Agency.

Mr Ladyman said: 'This significant increase on original costs is due to two main factors: very large quantities of phosphatic chalk and a high water table, with the groundwater potentially rising to the surface at times of heavy rainfall.

'These factors would significantly complicate the tunnelling process and extend the overall construction period.

'We have to re-examine whether the scheme still represents value for money and whether it remains the best option.'

A joint venture of Balfour Beatty and Costain had been lined up to carry out the work. But, while both firms were putting a brave face on the setback, other contractors attacked the Highways Agency findings as excuses.

One contractor that had been shortlisted for the work said: 'It is unbelievable that problems with chalk weren't known since the inception of the scheme.You only need 10 quid to buy an ordnance survey map.Water and chalk is just an excuse.

'Maybe someone got land costs or construction budgets wrong. I think something caused it to end up in the 'too hard to handle'category.People are just looking for an excuse not to do it.'

Another said: 'The Government's main priorities are now the main highway arteries. Everything else is getting pushed into the sidelines and this scheme was a casualty of that thinking.'

It has been confirmed that the water table was higher than originally measured and the problem of chalk is also accepted as increasing construction costs.

But over half the increase in budget has been blamed on land costs, inflation and other non-construction costs.

One source close to the project said: 'All the major transport projects are eating into the £11.2 billion transport fund the Government promised. Unless that total is changed to allow for inflation, more schemes could go.

'I think they have painted a picture of how costs have increased on the scheme.

Then they have taken bits they wanted and used them as an excuse.'

The joint venture of Costain and Balfour Beatty had been up against Skanska, Sir Robert McAlpine/Bouygues, Mowlem/ Morgan Est and Amec/Alfred McAlpine for the contract before winning it in 2002.