Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to the newest version of your browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of Construction News, please enable cookies in your browser.

Welcome to the Construction News site. As we have relaunched, you will have to sign in once now and agree for us to use cookies, so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Where the transport buck stops

AGENDA - Six years ago Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott promised to transform the country's transport networks with a decade-long stream of road building projects.Stephanie Hendries asks: how many will actually get built?

UNDER Transport 2010, better known as the 10-year Transport Plan, the Deputy Prime Minister promised he would spend £180 billion on new roads, tram systems and rail improvements between 2000 and 2010.

While welcoming the announcement, the British Road Federation remarked: 'The credibility of the 10year plan will depend on a clear timetable of implementation, with clear transparency regarding funding of specific policies.' But has the Government actually got this money to spend? Right now, as the health sector is finding out, the cash seems to be running out.

At the London offices of the then Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, Mr Prescott produced statistic after statistic outlining spending targets for the decade ahead.

For 2005-06, Government spending on transport under the plan was supposed to be £13 billion.

This has proved to be hopelessly optimistic.

According to Department for Transport figures, just £1.6 billion has been awarded to local councils, light rail seems to be a thing of the past and, with the greater use of DBFO forms of contract, less money is being spent on major road projects than previously.

And last year the Department for Transport announced it was setting up new regional boards designed to work side by side with councils and the Highways Agency. These, the ministry explained, would set the agenda for how the funding was going to be dished out and exactly which schemes would get built. But ultimately, the civil servants said, the decision would always rest with the Government.

Establishing the boards has not been an easy task.

Originally piloted in two areas ? the south-east and Yorkshire & Humberside ? the make-up of these boards was not specified but officials hoped they would include representatives from regional assemblies and development agencies, as well as transport experts.

Alan Stilwell, chairman of the Transport Board at the Institution of Civil Engineers, said: 'It is important to remember that even now these regional boards have not officially actually been set up. Most regions simply have a transport partnership within their assemblies.

'While the process of picking out the regional schemes to go ahead has gone very well indeed, it will no doubt go more smoothly when the boards are fully set up.' Each region now has until the end of January to draw up a priority list ? the definitive list of the schemes they wish to go ahead with.

The original guidance from central government recommended lists of 25 schemes to be completed over the 10 years. But in practice the boundaries of the plan have become ever more blurred ? and so too have the proposals. The north-east, the region with the least amount of allocated funding, only picked 15 schemes. A spokesman admitted: 'The amount of schemes chosen is simply indicat ive of the amount of cash we have got.' Mr Stilwell remarked: 'The DfT did set out guidelines about how to set up the regional boards but some areas have not quite got the message. Some only laid out proposals for a five-year period and were obviously ducking the advice.' And as each region unveils its priority schemes, it is becoming clear that major road building jobs are being axed in favour of schemes which find more favour with local authorities, such as transport interchanges, provision of school buses and so on. So many long-awaited major council road building projects, such as the £20 million Ormskirk bypass, simply do not make it onto the regional boards' priority lists.

The south-east picked some of the most demanding Highways Agency schemes to support in their priority list, such as the the A3 Hindhead and the A2 Bean to Cobham schemes in Surrey. The West Midlands is the only area not to have chosen any Highways Agency schemes at all.

An official at the North West Regional Assembly, which has cut nearly three-quarters of its transport schemes, said: 'These schemes may still go ahead.

It's just that they will now have to wait until 2011 until they can be decided upon. We had a list of nearly 100 schemes so of course many of them simply cannot make it onto the list.' The Government is, perhaps unsurprisingly, silent on this huge culling of major road projects and the Highways Agency would not comment on the number of its schemes that have been cut.

The speculation is, of course, that the listing exercise is simply a way of getting someone else to carry the can for what amounts to a massive reneging on the 10-year Transport Plan.

A spokesman for the Civil Engineering Contractors Association said: 'This is simply a way of prolonging the decision and dumping road jobs at a lower level so the DfT does not have to take the blame when they don't go ahead.' The DfT does not see it like that, of course. A spokesman said: 'The lists are a mechanism for regions to have better input into policy development and the public spending decisions that affect them.' At the end of the day contractors are left wondering exactly how much work they are going to miss out on as the Transport Plan is whittled back at regional level.

One industry source said: 'Looking at the lists I can see they have chosen cheaper transport priorities rather than the big road jobs from the Highways Agency.

'We now face an indefinite wait to see whether major Early Contractor Involvement road schemes that have already been worked up ? Stonehenge, for example ? will actually ever get built.' Even the supporters of the regional boards are worr ied about the futu re of some road schemes.

The ICE's Mr Stilwell added: 'The real question is, what happens to the scheme that hasn't made it onto the list? I know in the north-west, for example, they have reserve schemes that may still go ahead if one of the regional schemes fails further down the line.

'Really, though I don't think anyone knows what will happen to a road scheme that has been shelved.

'There is an uncertainty in these boards which needs to be clarified.' When the British Road Federation spoke of the need for a clear timetable and transparency about the funding of specific policies in 2000, it clearly was expressing its own doubts about how much of the Transport 2010 would get built. But even the sceptics at the BRF cannot have envisaged the kind of scaling back the industry has seen in recent weeks.