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The truth must win out

Comment

Well done Manchester.

Following the vagaries of this government's transport policy and the bizarre, often downright crazy, decision making of Transport Secretary Alastair Darling - highlighted in this column in the past - it is a real pleasure to finally see some direct action reaping reward at the highest level.

Getting Tony Blair to publicly back Manchester's plans for a Metro extension - and to force Darling into a humiliating Uturn - can only be described as a magnificent result for the city's population and its local politicians.

It is a great result for local government and proves that, even in this political environment of carefully researched, centrally stage-managed policy, sensible and popular projects can win a proper hearing.

Getting this reprieve has not been easy. It has taken a well organised and well backed campaign involving a range of people from national and local politicians to Coronation Street stars. It has also taken guts and belief by the project's engineers, planners, and backers working hard, of course, on behalf of the public supporting the scheme.

The project is not out of the woods yet. While Darling stood beside his infrastructure-investment keen boss and grudgingly proclaimed his desire to see more light rail in the UK, he continued to point out that cost still remains the show-stopper.

He is right. But what he seems continuously to forget is that he can have an influence on this cost. Put simply, in a large scheme of this kind, cost is heavily driven by the risks involved in the construction and delivery process - the more that the private sector is asked to take on, the more they will charge.

So without question, with the Treasury behind him, Darling is well placed to help. The more supportive that government is towards projects, the more committed the private sector will become.

The fact the Manchester team is preparing to resubmit its plans with reorganised design, delivery and operation and lower costs, by shifting more of the risk in house, only goes to highlight this fact.

Obviously there has to be a balance struck. But ruling out all schemes at the stroke of a pen is not the way to strike this balance or win an integrated transport system for the UK.

So Manchester's success is to have lifted the head of government. In July, Darling completely ruled out light rail as too expensive. Now we see the door open for those who really know how to explain why his sweeping statement was so wrong - or at least not the complete truth.

Manchester achieved this success by shouting loud in the right ears at the right time and it is a lesson that every other local authority - even every engineer - would do well to learn from.

We see this week in NCE's first ever Local Government File that huge amounts of money are already ear-marked to transform the public realm as power devolves to the regions. This amount will only rise and local government must be allowed to spend the money.

Over the next six months we will see local authorities going through the whole process of formulating and submitting their Local Transport Plans, planning and bidding for their next five years' transport budgets. The success by Manchester Metro shows that provided the voice is loud enough, clear enough and in the right ears, even this government cannot afford to rule out a good idea.

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