The Government this week granted the controversial Heysham M6 Link Road “Programme Entry” status in its bid to secure funding -- but no money has been earmarked for congestion relief in Lancaster and Morecambe and the scheme may still not get the go ahead if its costs rise significantly.
The Department for Transport announced that the £137 million proposals, greenlit after a public inquiry found in the scheme's favour last February, have gained the first level of approval for the project, to the delight of the County Council and other road supporters.
Main highway works, which will see the road carve its unwelcome way through green belt land north of Lancaster, are due to commence in 2010 with an expected completion date of 2014 -- but there are still several more stages for the scheme to complete before the County can start carving up the green belt.
Announcing the funding, transport minister Paul Clark said the road would be of particular benefit to freight traffic, confirming the arguments of those opposing the scheme that the planned road has little to do with easing road congestion in the area.
"This will bring much-needed congestion relief to Lancaster's historic centre, improve road safety and the local environment, as well as providing an opportunity to introduce better public transport," Mr Clark said. "The government is committed to investing in transport links, particularly when they help boost economic growth and regeneration."
County Councillor Matthew Tomlinson (pictured right), Cabinet member for sustainable development welcomed the news, which will see the construction of a 4.8km long two-lane dual carriageway all-purpose road with intermediate junctions and a combined foot and cycleway along its full length.
“I am pleased that the Secretary of State has awarded us Programme Entry status," the Labour councillor, whose hobbies include "walking in the Lakes" (but not, perhaps, around Lancaster's green belt) commented. Tomlinson, who reperesnts Leyland Central on the County Council, feels "This is very positive news for the M6 Link project and means that we can move forward with the plans for this worthwhile scheme.
“The county's team will be working hard to progress the scheme through the rest of the legal processes. Once complete the new link road should greatly improve the inter-urban road network in and around Lancaster and Heysham."
The announcement grants the scheme 'Programme Entry' status in line with the Department for Transport's local major scheme guidance approval process. This means the Department expects to fund the scheme, subject to costs remaining the same (which is doubtful) and the relevant legal powers being obtained.Funding "Not Guaranteed"
Critics of the scheme, which has met with fierce opposition from those living near its planned route and others, point out that while programme entry funding would cover the estimated £133 million of the costs of building the road, it does not extend to any further measures designed to tackle in town congestion.
"This does not mean the bypass can be built and programme entry status does not guarantee funding," points out Green Party City Councillor and transport expert John Whitelegg (pictured left). "It can be withdrawn over the next few months.
"It took DfT over three years of discussion with the County Council to get to this point when it normally takes six months," he continues. "The DfT knows this bypass was not properly evaluated by County, is bad value for money, destructive and damaging to the green belt and the residents of Torrisholme, makes climate change problems worse and is unnecessary. The decision to grant programme entry is simply DfT cowardice.
"The DfT also knows that it will not fund the £6 million for the park and ride at Junction 34 and neither will County," he added. "It knows that that the cost will escalate even more than the current high of £137 million and that County will have to pay 50% of any cost increase and it knows that County will eventually have to drop the scheme. DfT would rather that County got the political flak for dropping it rather than ministers."
“The [funding announcement] does not cover Park and Ride (£3.5 million), or congestion relief measures, or future cost overruns," concurs David Gate chair of independent transport campaign group Transport Solutions for Lancaster and Morecambe. "The Government refuses to fund them, so the cash-strapped County Council must bear the cost, and who knows how many millions that will be?
"Lancashire's hard pressed taxpayers are now committed to a huge and unknown liability for the future.
“The County Council has pressed on with this scheme, in the face of opposition by the district’s MP Geraldine Smith, the City Council and the local public," David continued. "They know it won’t solve congestion, won’t bring jobs, but will increase pollution. Yet there are alternatives. An integrated package of transport relief measures has been drawn up, and is on councillors’ desks at the moment. It would tackle congestion more cheaply than the Link Road.
“We know the Department of Transport is not happy with this scheme. We have met them, and the officers knew that the submission was flawed and inadequate in several key respects. We’re disappointed they’ve granted programme entry, but they are adamant that County must pay its full share of any further cost increases, and there are likely to be many."
The scheme includes alterations to the local road network including existing junctions and some 23 major structures will need to be built including bridges over the West Coast Mainline railway, Lancaster Canal and the River Lune.
“Pitfalls lie ahead for the Link plan before it destroys the Green Belt”, says Mr. Gate. “The County must get Compulsory Purchase Orders, with a possible public inquiry. Then they must get quotes from contractors, which may be over budget. And at each stage, the recession-bound Government has to give further approval. There’s still a very long way to go.”
Costs for new roads are infamous for rising rapidly after receiving first level funding such as that announced this week. The Campaign for Better Transport cites several, including the Carlisle Northern Route, which cost £170 million, its costs up 118% since programme entry in Decvember 2000.
Opponents of the bypass have long argued for alternatives to new road building and there's now evidence to show that that even small attempts at easing congestion do work. Lancashire County Council itself has been running a large scale project called “Travel Smart” to reduce car trips and increase the use of walking, cycling and public transport (more info here on the SusTrans web site). In Lancaster, this produced a 12 per cent reduction in car trips and a 16 percent increase in the sustainable forms of transport.
The next stages in the approval process are normally Conditional Approval (once the necessary legal powers are in place) and Full Approval (once final supplier prices have been secured).
With the County making budget cuts to many of its services -- the continuation of unpopular cuts to services such as local libraries and education it has been making for years -- funding the link road despite local oppositon is sure to raise more than a few eyebrows.
• More about the Bypass scheme on Virtual-Lancaster
• Transport Solutions for Lancaster and Morecambe web site
• TSLM "Alternative Solutions to the Road"
• Campaign for Better Trasnpsort
• Sustrans "Travel Smart" Report
• County Council statement on Programme Entry Funding
• Department of Transport