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Bold claims cannot hide true shortfall

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Launched last week as a '£1bn boost for national strategic roads', the Highways Agency's programme of works for the next three years sounds like big money.

Add into that the '£900M programme of schemes in the regions' and it sounds better still.

But it takes little time to work out that things are not as good as they seem.

'It is very difficult to get any true sense at all with the figures the government comes up with as they keep moving the goal posts. But the long and short of it is these figures don't make good reading, ' said Freight Transport Association (FTA) chief economist Simon Chatman.

First, Chatman points out, the numbers don't stack up. While the Highways Agency claims that £900M will be spent on regional roads, Department for Transport releases published over the last two weeks tell a different story.

In the last two weeks it has announced a £4.68bn package for seven of the eight English regions outside of London, excluding the West Midlands, whose settlement has still to be announced.

Of this, £4.04bn will be claimed by local authorities for highway maintenance and local authority roads schemes.

But even assuming the west Midlands gets a whopping £300M, the Highways Agency will be left with just £640M.

That is pretty well peanuts compared to the real shortfall.

The £1.9bn the Highways Agency is planning to spend in the next three years is well below that spent in the previous three years, blowing out of the water claims of year on year spending increases.

The DfT's annual report notes that £2.13bn will be spent on capital highways projects between 2002/03 and 2004/05.

The FTA calculates that at 2003 prices, taking into account inflation and construction prices, this equates to £414M less spending than promised in the previous three years.

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