Local campaigners arguing for cheaper alternatives to the planned M6 Link Road north of Lancaster have slammed the government's decision to give it a qualified go ahead.
The Government gave a qualified go-ahead to the £140 million Heysham M6 Link Road yesterday, along with a number of other road schemes around the country, just as Lancashire County Council announced that it will have to cut £180 million in services over the next three years.
Transport Secretary Philip Hammond announced that the go-ahead is “subject to a best and final offer from local authorities on costs”.
Commenting on the decision, County Councillor Tim Ashton, Cabinet member for highways and transport, said: "This is great news. The M6 link is more than just a road - it will be an engine for economic growth for the whole of the region.
"Its construction will generate thousands of jobs and a six-fold return for every pound invested in it," he claimed. "The scheme enjoys widespread public support and will greatly improve access to the major port of Heysham and the rest of the peninsula."
The Council claims construction of the road alone will employ over 3,000 people and a minimum of 100 local unemployed people will receive training and jobs during construction.
The road plan is also backed by both local MPs and local businesses, who argue it is vital to improve transport links -- but campaigners are wondering just who will pay for the road if it does finally get the green light.
The Department for Transport has asked for the total cost of the scheme to be reduced as a result of the wider Comprehensive Spending Review before a final funding offer is agreed.
"It appears the Government wants authorities to cut costs, but it is not clear who is going to pay," says David Gate, Chair of Transport Solutions for Lancaster and Morecambe. “If they change the scheme by big cost cuts, it will no longer be the scheme that has planning permission.
“Complementary measures, such as better public transport and park & ride are also a condition of the scheme – it can’t go ahead without them – but the government won’t fund them.
“If the County Council asks for local contributions, who will stump up the cash? Local businesses will want a return, and Lancashire's hard-pressed taxpayers would object to the Council borrowing for this speculative extravagance when they are obliged to cut essential jobs and services.”
A recent report described an alternative package of integrated transport measures that would tackle congestion and so bring regeneration to the area, AND save £100 million on the Link Road (see news story).
“That package should be the way forward,” said Mr Gate, “not a divisive £140 million road scheme that won’t solve congestion or bring jobs.”
Local Greens have also poured scorn on the announcement.
"The County Council is facing cuts to services of over £70 million next year," Green County Coun Chris Coates points out. "It's a criminal waste of money to be committing to spend £140 million plus on a road scheme at this time.
"When we are facing cut backs in youth services, closure of swimming pools, cuts to the Arts and jobs losses in nearly all public services, it seems crazy to be spending what little money we do have on miles of tarmac just to make the journey to the M6 10 minutes shorter.”
“This road will do little to reduce congestion in Lancaster and will destroy a swath of countryside north of the city, increasing noise and pollution for hundreds of residents," added Green City Councillor, Anne Chapman. "It will increase emissions of carbon dioxide at a time when we should be investing in infrastructure to reduce, not increase carbon emissions. This reveals the hollowness of the ConDem Coalition’s promise to be ‘the greenest government ever.”
"I fully understand why the Department for Transport is asking us to reduce the costs of the scheme within the wider context of the Comprehensive Spending Review," says County Councillor Ashton.
"We've already been looking at how we can save money on the scheme and I look forward to being able to finally agree funding with the Department for Transport before the end of the year."
An inquiry now has to be timetabled to hear objections to Compulsory Purchase Orders for land needed for the scheme. Depending on the new timescales, construction could begin in 2012 with the road opened to traffic in 2015.
• The James Report, presenting alternatives to the road can be accessed on line at www.heyshamm6link.info or you can view it online here