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Has Darling lost the plot?

Comment

The crazy planning approval process for infrastructure projects in the UK continues to throw up new examples of the kind of blatant stupidity that will sadly reduce the nation's ability to compete on the world stage.

The ridiculous situation of the A30 Bodmin to Indian Queens scheme in Cornwall is a case in point. Here we have a long awaited, much debated planning approved road scheme which will now be delivered later and at a higher cost, simply because the government cannot get its act together over spending £60M.

It is all the more astounding given the Transport Secretary Alastair Darling's outspoken - and so far unjustified - criticisms of the cost of construction and specifically the industry's ability to control them.

Hopefully someone within Darling's department will point out to him this clear example of government nonsense and encourage him to take action sooner rather than later so that the programme damage and cost escalation can be limited.

Cost and programme control was, after all, the thinking behind early contractor involvement schemes. Get the contractors, designers and client talking early so that no time is lost between public approval and start of construction. Well in this case there is no doubt the construction industry has stuck to its brief.

The stupidity is that this scheme is such small beer in terms of the overall transport spending budget. If he's dithering over a £60M scheme with public support then he will have little chance with anything more complex - Crossrail, East London Line, motorway widening - take your pick.

But let's be generous. Let's assume that firstly he knows what he's doing and secondly that he has not been briefed by Tony 'we can't afford to not invest' Blair to keep a secure lid on transport spending. Maybe he's simply hamstrung by the system of over-centralised decisionmaking.

This week saw the party con- ference season kick off with the Lib-Dems in Bournemouth. For the majority of the population - ie those of us in the real world outside the Westminster village or party activism - this serves only to confirm that the UK political machine has returned from its outrageously long summer holidays.

While I would never begrudge anyone a holiday, it is a fact that the political calendar wreaks havoc on the civil service and its ability to tee up government decisions on the planning process in a reasonably swift manner.

So maybe that is Darling's problem. Civil servants simply haven't prepared the letters he now has to sign. It is clear that since the mass of announcements on spending in July nothing has really happened in terms of taking decisions forward. So maybe no one has been around to add the numbers up and work out what Gordon Brown's comprehensive spending review really means.

If true it highlights at best a failure of joined up government and at worst a cynical ploy to bolster the budget.

Whatever the cause of the UK's current and worsening infrastructure delivery disaster, it is certain that the construction industry deserves better. It deserves better from its Transport Secretary and it deserves better from its government.

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