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Priority engagement

Overview - Widening of the M25 is racing ahead, giving ministers renewed confidence in major 'national' schemes. Meanwhile 'regional' schemes are still stuck on the shelf.Mark Hansford reports.

In January 2004 work started on the £148M widening of 10.5km of the M25 between its interchanges with the M3 and M4. Technically simple the challenge may be, but the project team was under no illusions as to the political importance of the scheme.

'We are the vanguard of future motorway widening. The success of this could determine the outcome of the 10 year plan, ' Highways Agency project leader Terry Williams said at the time (NCE 22 January 2004). 'It's got to be a success.' 'Future widening work could depend on this project, ' echoed Peter Anderson, project director for design and build contractor Balfour Beatty. 'As civil engineers the work is vital.' One of the busiest roads in Europe, this section of the M25 carries 240,000 vehicles a day right past the noses of ministers in Whitehall. Newspapers were poised with headlines screaming 'gridlock' and 'traffic chaos'.

But 18 months on there has been no traffic chaos, no national headlines and work is firmly on schedule for a Christmas completion. So have Anderson and his team secured the future- The Agency has big and expensive plans for the rest of the M25, and the M1 also sits high on the to-do list. Between 2005/06 and 2007/08 the Agency plans to spend £2.1bn on capital schemes.

'It really has helped us with the remaining sections of the M25, ' says Highways Agency major projects (national) divisional director Ian Scholey.

'Ministers are based in London and so will frequently drive around the M25. Seeing it flowing freely around the roadworks has done us a lot of good.'

It has also boosted the project team. Helped in no small part by its good work on the M25, all involved have been retained by the Agency to carry out its next major scheme - the £240M widening of the M1 between the M25 and Milton Keynes (see box).

'The strategic plan is to get the M1 done and out the way before the DBFO comes in to do the remaining three lane stretches of the M25, otherwise from a traffic management point of view it will be horrendous, ' says Scholey. 'The programme for the M1 is tight, but we don't want to leave gaps in the overall programme.' Scholey is convinced that government money will be there for the M1 upgrades. 'These are flagship schemes and so will be funded. It was good news for us that the transport secretary (Alistair Darling) is back in. We don't have to go through the reeducation of another minister.' But while Scholey exudes confidence for the M1 and other 'national schemes' prioritised by the Agency, there is less ebullience for those schemes now classed as 'regional'.

Darling sparked outrage in the construction industry last December when he split the Agency's programme into schemes of national and regional importance - and to send those schemes considered only to be of regional importance off to new Regional Transport Boards (RTB) for prioritisation (NCE 2 December 2004).

Major schemes such as the A303 Stonehenge tunnels and A3 Hindhead tunnel were among those hoofed into the 'long grass' and the news for these is no better six months on.

The RTBs have still to be formed and there is no firm date for when they may start to make real decisions. Indeed, in most regions there is no news even as to who will sit on them.

'It will take time for these boards to understand the process of prioritisation, ' says Highways Agency director of network strategy Hillary Chipping. 'The whole structure has not been set up yet. There are no firm decisions and each region is likely to be different.' In trials last year South East and Yorkshire boards chose to set up in different ways.

'We are expecting an announcement later this summer with the boards set up in the autumn, ' Chipping says. 'The first advice from them could link in with Local Transport Plan decisions in December, but they will certainly feed into the Spending Review 2006.' Until then, Chipping insists, it is the status quo.

'Essentially the whole network remains trunk road and we remain responsible for it. We have strong links in the regions already. We're not going to sit around until autumn. We have a good idea of the priorities and it is a mistake to see the regional process as delaying the programme at all.' Agency major projects director Keith Miller agrees.

'I actually see considerable potential here. I would have thought regional involvement is a natural extension of multi-modal studies. But this is a transitional process and we are not letting that slow us down.'

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