TOP GEAR

TOP GEAR

The Government, by refusing to tackle North East transport needs, makes a rod for its own back through unemployment and other economic costs, says Douglas Kell.

The recent 50th anniversary of motorways in this country may soon fade from memory, but knowing that the North East is still the only region without a complete motorway system will not.

The position will not be rectified for many years either, as things stand. Three recent government reports bear out that an urgent upgrade of the A1 in Northumberland, even to dual carriageway, which is justifiable both on economic and safety grounds, will require a ministerial U-turn.

One of the reports, by the Department for Transport1 shows that despite all forecasts of higher road usage over the next 20 years, the Department (DfT) has still no detail, no clear intention even, about which major projects in England will go ahead up to 2014, or exactly when.

This is despite its own concession that A1 stretches not even dualled yet will still be capable of damaging the economy then.

The total cost of poor transport connections for 50,000 businesses in the North East (whether on the A1, A66, A69 or indeed elsewhere) is put now at £1bn - money down the drain.

Accidents on England’s final north stretch of the A1 may be fewer than the DfT thinks vital to redress, but the casualties that do occur result from some of the most horrendous nonmotorway accidents anywhere.

Since the DfT itself expects material costs torise until at least 2012, doing work now would benefit the economy in the end, and bring social benefits - all very Keynesian and feasible.

There is an important political consideration also.The A1 is one of two main routes joining England and Scotland.

Westminster is concerned to preserve the United Kingdom against pressures for full independence from Scottish nationalists.

And history - through the Romans, General Wade and builders of the British Empire - should remind Westminster that good road communication can be a powerful deterrent against ‘us and them’ thinking.

Ironically, much of the Scottish end of the 410-mile road has already been upgraded.

Civil engineering contractors such as those I represent can understand the pressures on a national road budget that was limited to £6bn for the next six years, and which may still be no more despite the Chancellor Alistair Darling having just advanced £3bn of work originally intended for 2010-11.

We also acknowledge that widening the A1 to motorway standard between Dishforth and Barton – Dishforth to Leeming now, Leeming to Barton from 2011 – is going ahead.

Surely though, a motorway from the M25 to Tyne and Wear which will result, bringing major safety benefits even on the DfT’s own admission, needs quickly to be dualled, at least further up towards the Scottish border to sustain the improved safety.

Instead, an £85m dualling of eight miles from Morpeth to Felton by 2012, and dualling at Adderstone, between Alnwick and Berwick, have all been deferred - at what material and human cost, long term? Elsewhere in the region, Haydon Bridge, midway between Newcastle and Carlisle, is the last sizeable community on the A69 about to be bypassed.

Even here uncertainty arises. Work begun in 2007 should finish by next spring despite the recent bad weather, the Highways Agency says.

But the DfT states the bypass will open over the next three years.

So is the DfT report, circulated with ministerial endorsement, out of touch? Or does the Government know more than it tells even the Highways Agency? Any scheme in the North East that is progressed follows advice received from the region in 2006, the Department says. So what major schemes are approved for two years from now? Long silence... An additional 80 lane miles of extra capacity now likely to go ahead nationally excludes the North East.

As for the two other government reports – on regional planning and regional funding methods – the former does not advocate A1 improvement, despite acknowledging. The latter report merely confirms that, in future, regional partners – public sector in the main – can state priorities to central Government. No commitment beyond that. The DfT does make a point of stating, in apparent self-absolution, that local authorities are responsible for about 99% of English roads. But it must know, as we do, that local authorities (which would not predominate anyway in the North East requirements cited) - are virtually broke.