Road builders are holding their collective breath for the Government's forthcoming 10 year plan of how the road network is to be improved.
The much heralded 10 year vision - expected on 17 July - will give consultants and contractors a good idea of how active the roads market will be over the next ten years.
All that is known for sure is that the Government intends to announce the level of public and private spending on roads over the next 10 years. The lack of detail relating to specific schemes has caused a frenzy of speculation and alleged Whitehall leaks about a new programme of motorway widening and bypass building.
Opinion differs as to what will be served up to the industry. The latest rumours emanating from final negotiations between the DETR and the Treasury point to a figure of around £100bn to be spent on transport over 10 years, with £20bn of that going on roads.
John Dawson, head of policy at the AA, is confident that specific details of some schemes will be revealed: 'There is a whole series of multi modal studies going on about the future of over 60 road schemes, ' he says. 'The Government could conclude that some of the schemes are blindingly obvious as to what the answer is in terms of congestion hot spots. What I would expect to see is a limited programme at congestion pinch points announced, especially on inter urban corridors: the M1, M6, M25, M3, M4 and M40.'
Official government spokespeople remain impervious to the off the record briefings that journalists from national newspapers have been privy to. A DETR spokesperson says: 'There won't be a great deal of hard and fast detail about what schemes will be happening where, and how transport will be better across the modes. There will be indicative ideas of the kind of schemes and the kind of places as a guide to local authorities.'
Environmental groups are mobilising themselves against an expected new stream of road schemes. Transport 2000, the Council for the Protection of Rural England and Road Peace, to name but three, have reacted with particular horror to reports that the Government is to resurrect schemes rejected in the 1998 Roads Review such as the Salisbury Bypass and the Hereford Bypass.
'A spending spree on roads would see a public outcry, not just from Swampy and his friends but from ordinary people up and down the country, ' says Transport 2000 director Stephen Joseph. 'The last thing we need at the moment is another civil war over transport when there is so much that can be done to improve quality of life without new roads. Particularly disturbing would be the re-emergence of controversial schemes like Salisbury Bypass, mothballed by the Government in 1997 after a barrage of local opposition.'
The issue of whether 'ordinary people up and down the country' are against bypasses, as Joseph claims, is disputed by local authorities. Many are promoting new congestion busting bypasses in their forthcoming five year Local Transport Plans for Government transport funding, and the schemes have to demonstrate strong local support to pass muster. Eighteen new road schemes above £5M were approved in last year's one year settlement and more are expected this year.
The prospect of higher local transport investment is set to fuel optimism in a market already gaining in confidence. Heartening reports of road order books for the first quarter of 2000 up 32% on the same period last year are being followed by a growing sense of optimism for the future. Road consultants such as Mott MacDonald are feeling sufficiently encouraged to boost staff in their transport division by up to 20%.
Jim Turner, economic advisor at the Civil Engineering Contractors Association, confirms that recent meetings of the Road Infrastructure Liaison Committee - made up of representatives of CECA and the Highways Agency - have created 'much ground for optimism' among road contractors.
'Recent legislation such as the creation of Regional Development Agencies and the Greater London Authority tended to hold up the development of schemes, ' he says. 'In our recent work trends survey, contractors are yet to feel any real tangible boost to the market; it is the greater optimism that is having the effect. There are more road schemes being taken off the shelf than has publicly been admitted.'
Optimism will wane pretty quickly if the Government fails to get a firmer grip on the planning process for roads, says Costain chief executive John Armitt.
'It's going to be difficult for the Government to say we've got a 10 year strategy including new road schemes when, as it stands, the timescale for road building can't be controlled. Once you get to the planning inquiry you are opening up a can of worms. The Government needs to retain some powers to enable it to push schemes through which are in the national interest. We need a more time controlled planning system. In the end whether we get it will come down to the political will.'
While the Government shows signs of trying to lose its anti-car image once and for all, Armitt and many other contractors hope this will result in stability for the market.
'Above all, contractors want stability, ' he says. 'Five years of potential workload is the only way we can start to build up real capability. Good engineers will then see for themselves that it is worth being part of this business.'
Costain is currently doing a £50M road improvement on the A43 near Silverstone and building a £60M feeder road into Newport. The firm is also part of one of the two consortia battling it out for the £400M contract to build the Birmingham Northern Relief Road. For the future Armitt says: 'It's going to be a gradual build up but the granting of three years' capital expenditure for roads rather than one under the Comprehensive Spending Review is a good start.'
Consultant Mouchel also hopes to win contracts to design new road schemes.
'We're very hopeful of getting work on the A6(M) Stockport north-south bypass and the A14 Huntingdon-Cambridge capacity increase having done preliminary work on both schemes, which are subject to multi modal studies, ' says roads director John Amos.
Mouchel is also in prime position to design the M1 widening junctions 6-10, having already done junctions 10-11.
Amos emphasises the new opportunities available for consultants and maintenance contractors from future local authority transport settlements.
'Local authorities we have spoken to are all expecting a big increase in funds for maintenance and road improvements, ' he says. 'The Government has already indicated that Local Transport Plan settlements will rise from £750M to over £1.1M this year.'
New County Surveyors Society president Edward Chorlton supports the view that much of the bigger pot for local authorities should be directed into bypasses. He says: 'There are a number of areas where an integrated transport policy option won't work unless you get a bypass.
'Environmentally, some areas don't develop unless they get a bypass. There will be one large bypass scheme on average in most Local Transport Plans. We don't advise more than one.'