Two years ago the government issued its much trumpeted 10 year transport plan to revitalise the country's creaking infrastructure and tackle congestion. It is due for its first progress report within months but woe betide local governments that are failing to deliver.
Nina Lovelace reports.
ENGINEERS WHO feel that construction projects from the government's 10 year transport plan are not coming through as quickly as they would like may struggle to get transport secretary Alistair Darling to proffer a sympathetic ear.
A meeting with Darling makes his attitude towards transport delivery crystal clear. Everybody must take responsibility for improving UK transport, so no whinging please. He is also under no illusions about who should be complaining least of all and showing real innovation.
Stand up, local authorities.
Darling's feelings are clear on councils which procrastinate on tackling local congestion. 'I do think the solutions to local congestion have to come from councils. It's ludicrous to send in a chap from Whitehall and say, 'well this is what you should be doing'. Central government doesn't know the local issues like local government does, ' he says.
Darling says he is well aware that some local authorities, notably Edinburgh, Leeds and Oxford, have been proactive about cutting congestion. Some have gone for congestion charging, while others have chosen different means, including establishing bus priority routes or improving availability of transport information. Some local authorities have done little. 'Other councils have taken a very relaxed view, ' he says coolly.
Organisations like the Construction Industry Council (CIC) have accused the government of failing to guide councils on how to develop the schemes which will help deliver its 10 year transport plan targets. The CIC has called for government to produce congestion reduction benchmarks and targets for journey times (NCE 23 May) Darling says he plans to publish general guidelines on congestion charging in the first half of next year after he has watched progress on London mayor Ken Livingstone's £5 charge to enter central London.
But he is irritated by calls for government guidance and benchmarks. 'For goodness sake, you can get guidance from us, but you've got to do some thinking yourselves, ' is his message to slow moving councils.
'There is an awful culture in the country of saying, 'well we need guidelines, show us the signs'.
Well, Brunel didn't wait for guidelines when he built his bridges and railways.
'Of course we will issue guidelines but they cannot be used as an excuse by planners and engineers. There is a lot of innovation out there, there are a lot of good things going on in local authorities. If one of your readers is sitting in a council and nothing is happening, tell them to go and see a council where something is happening.
Go and see what they've done.
'If a council is getting the money, and doing nothing or minimal stuff, then why are we doing it? Councils have to justify what they do to the people who put them into power. We should not be giving money to councils that are doing precious little.
'You do need to consult, especially when you are doing something very significant. But there comes a point where you need to make up your mind, ' he says simply.
Darling is busying himself looking at the first few tranches of multi-modal studies that have been coming forward. He is considering the recommendations of four - the South West Area Regional Multi Modal Study, the Midlands to the North West Study, the A453 to M1 study and the A1 north of Newcastle route. He expects to make decisions on recommendations within the next few months.
He is noticeably irked by the way consultants producing the studies have batted responsibility for deciding which construction schemes should go ahead back to central government. As a result many recommendations are more complex than perhaps they needed to be, he says.
'One of the striking things about them is that in a number of cases, when people have come up with competing ideas, the way they have resolved them is to stick both in.
'There are projects where people have come along and said, 'but you haven't got this bit of railway line in', and instead of deciding to argue the competing merits' they have said, 'well, let's shove it in because the government will decide it anyway'.
I think that's unfortunate.'
However, Darling is quick to support the whole process.
'The process has been generally useful, looking at competing options and the transport needs in a particular area rather than thinking, 'here's a road shall we build it or not?'' For all of his attempts to put responsibility into local hands, Darling is, to his credit, frank about central government's own, often very public, mistakes.
He admits, for example, that plans to increase railway use by 50% and freight capacity by 80% by 2010 have been set back by Railtrack's period in administration. But he is reluctant to say which of the 10 year plan targets will be missed as result.
'What I can say is that things will be more expensive than people thought. We have an envelope of money and we will not be approaching this with an attitude of, 'well if it costs more it costs more'. Instead we'll be saying, 'this is the money we have, so what can we get?'' He is aware that contractors and consultants are anxious to hear which major rail projects will come on line next. The Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) is working on plans for upgrading the East Coast Main Line and London's Thameslink.
The SRA is also working with Transport for London on plans for the multi billion pound Crossrail underground line between east and west London.
This scheme is slipping behind schedule because of indecision over the project's route and scope. He hopes a decision on Crossrail will be made in the 'early part' of 2003.
Meanwhile, doubts about whether the government can afford to fund the 10 year transport plan are beginning to surface. Recent reports of a £7bn black hole in government spending and the looming threat of a war with Iraq could see transport slide down the agenda.
Darling is unmoved. 'Before the pre-budget report, and before the budget, you will get 101 predictions - some are right and some are wrong. What I can say is that funding has been set for 10 years and will be reviewed in 2004 and 2007. But without strong transport infrastructure the economy will not go, and all sorts of consequences follow.'
Darling is adamant that the government is committed to transport spending as a priority, despite looming budget constraints. 'What I really need to emphasise - and this is really really important - is that I am not going to tear up plans that are already there. This is not about re-planning and starting again.'
From the mouths of babes . . .
Darlings' own no nonsense approach to the delivery of transport improvement may perhaps come from his early influences. His father was, after all, a civil engineer.
'My childhood was often spent on site on Saturday mornings, ' says Darling, whose father worked as a contractor for Sir Robert McAlpine and Kier.
'I remember clambering over the elevated section of the M4 at Chiswick and going around cooling towers at particular parts of the country, ' he says.