The Labour Party has denied undermining Highways England with plans to delay two schemes included on the new road body’s recently launched five-year delivery plan.
Ed Miliband’s party was this week warned that tinkering with the long-awaited £11bn programme could put contractors off investing in efficiency measures.
Labour sparked outrage with plans to delay the A27 Arundel Bypass and A358 Taunton-to-Southfields dualling schemes for five years if elected. It wants to allow time to re-examine the case for both projects.
Conservative roads minister John Hayes had promised “certainty for the industry” when Highways England started controlling the country’s roads.
But a Labour Party spokesman said this week: “We intend to go ahead with the works on the A27 with the exception of the specific Arundel bypass - this is due to cut through a National Park and so raises a number of environmental issues that need to be resolved before we give this one section of road improvement the go-ahead.
“We also want to get on with the A303 as this is a key transport link for the South West. It makes sense to delay the A358 Taunton-Southfield dualling scheme until the detailed plans for the A303 have been worked out so we can make the most of this investment to unlock the economic potential of the area.”
The savings from holding back the schemes over the next five years would help fund a block on rail fare increases. The Arundel bypass project was estimated to be worth as much as £250M and the Taunton to Southfields project is thought to be worth as much as £500M.
“Instead of an uncosted Tory plan they have no idea how they will pay for, Labour will deliver a fully funded rail fares freeze for one year,” said the Labour spokesman.
Another Labour Party spokesman told NCE that making changes to Highways England’s five-year plan would be seen as a “one-off”.
“We support long-term plans for road investment,” he insisted. “There are 127 schemes in the strategy and we would delay two of those. The other 125 would definitely go ahead.”
One industry source told NCE that although the two projects in question were not a major part of the overall roads vision for next five years, delaying them risked setting a dangerous precedent.
“It is not a great start for Highways England,” he said. “The ink is barely dry on the Infrastructure Act and at the first opportunity there is talk of reopening the delivery plan.
“This is a matter of principle - it could create a view that what was supposed to be a firm plan is open to tinkering by the government of the day.
“This is kryptonite to contractors as you need to be able to see a long-term plan in order to invest in innovation.
“If tinkering with the plan leads to uncertainty, and less investment, then cost will go up and the plan could cost more to deliver without these two schemes than it would have done with them.”
The Infrastructure Act became law in February, enabling the government to set up Highways England to replace the Highways Agency.
It formally came into being into came into being as a government company on 1 April.
Hayes said as the Infrastructure Bill passed its critical third reading in the House of Commons in January: “These changes will provide certainty for the industry and help it to get ready for the significant increases in investment over the next few years, with the confidence to recruit and train skilled workers.
“That confidence will mean that suppliers can build capability for the future and sign longer-term contracts with a new company at reduced cost to the taxpayer.”
Highways England chief executive Graham Dalton said in March: “The launch of Highways England is an incredibly significant moment for those who rely on England’s motorways and major A roads.
“As well as delivering the biggest investment in major roads since the 1970s, there will be fundamental changes to the way motorways and major A roads are maintained and operated.”zz