Commons Gate

The major road network (HC 533-i)

Transport Committee 20 May 2009

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Evidence given by:
2.45 p.m. Institution of Civil Engineers and the Institution of Highways and Transportation, Mr Alan Stilwell, University College London, Dr David Metz, Highways Agency, Graham Dalton, Chief Executive, Ginny Clarke, Network Services Director,
3.30 p.m., Local Government Association, Cllr David Sparks, Mersey Gateway, Steve Nicholson, Project Director, Mersey Gateway, County Surveyors' Society, Brian Smith, Executive Director, Environment Services

Q13 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I understand very well the problems on the A1. As you get near to the Scottish border where the road is very bad is it the same problem that we had when the M6 came to Carlisle? I can remember talking once to the Head of the Highways Agency asking when we were going to get the link to Scotland. He said "Mr Martlew, once it gets to Carlisle there is nowhere else for it to go". That was about 15 years ago. What he was really saying was that Scotland was nothing to do with him and therefore they were not going to put the money into improving the road to the Scottish border. Is that the same problem you have with the A1?

Mr Dalton: Apart from observing that the M6 is now complete to the border.

Q14 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I am talking about 15 years ago and they just opened it this year.

Mr Dalton: Understood. The real policy is with the Department for the longer-term transport plan. We have an investment programme, which is the one which was published by the Secretary of State in January. If you look at the traffic numbers in the north east - and I was up there in October with the local authorities - around Newcastle and Gateshead western bypass there is something in excess of 100,000 vehicles a day; it is a heavily congested piece of road around the bypass. South of Newcastle and Gateshead the A1 is carrying between 60,000 and 80,000 vehicles a day. If you go north, you are coming down to in the order of 20,000 vehicles a day so it is much lighter traffic. I know some road users have a perception that if it is not a motorway it is not a proper road, but in terms of the journey time, the actual transport and the function, it is a question of what the road does.


Q35 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I am very interested. What you seemed to say before is that if you are behind in getting a new road then you should continue to suffer. That seems to be the view: you should not continue to build any more new roads or you should build very few roads. It is very difficult to sell that if you are a politician, is it not? It is very difficult to tell people that they cannot develop the countryside because Whitehall thinks it is not a great idea that they should have the same freedom as others. How do you get over that dilemma? Do you invest very heavily in public transport in those areas? How do you solve that sense of unfairness there will be for people who have to suffer congestion every time and do not have the freedom of other parts which have good roads?

Dr Metz: That is a very fair point and there are issues arising from the history of where the roads happen to be. In this context we have to recognise the pressures of population growth; the population of Britain is due to increase by ten million people by 2030. Where are they going to go? What are the requirements going to be for housing, work and so forth? How are they going to travel? My conclusion would be that they probably have to go to existing towns and cities rather than disperse into the countryside and if they are in towns and cities you have good prospects of improving public transport to meet those needs. That is basically what has been happening in London. London is a vibrant city with a growing population, increasing density, therefore you invest in public transport to good effect and therefore car use shrinks. The issue of the balance between rural and urban and the pleasures of rural life offset by the problems of transport has no generalised conclusion; it may be more a matter for regional policy than national policy.

Q36 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): What you have not answered - perhaps you have. What you are saying is that you have to continue to live in cities, there is no alternative. We will build bigger cities and we will put public transport there. Is that what you said?

Dr Metz: If you are contemplating, as you are, an increase of ten million in the population of Britain that is probably what has to happen. They have to go in cities and towns.


Q84 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Can we return to the PFI schemes and perhaps Councillor Sparks we could have your experience? At the moment you have a lot of schemes which are paralysed because the banks have withdrawn. I have one in my own area and the Government have had to put more money in it. Is it not a very bureaucratic, very expensive way of putting a package together to build a road?

Cllr Sparks: My direct experience has not been so much in terms of building roads with PFIs, but Dudley was one of the first authorities to be involved with PFIs and the then chief finance officer, who has recently retired, was always very reluctant to go into further PFIs because they are extremely complex negotiations to manage. It is not an easy solution. If you have expertise within a local authority of having dealt with a PFI or if you can access the experience of dealing with a PFI, then it is far more attractive as an option than if you do not have that experience. It certainly is not a solution in itself.

Q85 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): The reality of a fairly small- or medium-sized authority is that experience is only going to be needed once or twice so they are unlikely to have that experience. We have a situation with the widening of the M25, which is not your remit, which is severely stalled and there are schemes up and down the country that are stalled because of the PFI scheme. Mr Smith, I was not quite convinced about your enthusiasm for the schemes.

Mr Smith: Let me just try to help by giving an example because you are absolutely right about the possible expertise. For instance, at the moment my own authority is working alongside Northamptonshire, so it is Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire together, on a street lighting PFI. One of the things therefore we are able to do is to share expertise, have a joint team. We are going to finish up with two separate contracts which is better but that is a good example of working together and indeed I know that is happening in other parts of the country on street lighting PFIs in particular. That is the sort of thing that local authorities will need to consider, particularly if you get to the medium- and smaller-sized authorities who will not necessarily have that in-house specialism. Having said that, we do have other national resources which we are able to call on, where we tend to be using things like gateway reviews and the like, which are very helpful to check that we have gone through the procedure and we are not just simply left exposed to making potentially expensive mistakes. I stress "potentially" because that is the one thing we must not do, given the longevity of these contracts.

Cllr Sparks: They can access through the LGA group expertise in relation to PFIs but that is only part of the problem. The problem is not the knowledge in terms of getting one going; it is actually managing it and making sure that it is actually worth doing.

Mr Nicholson: I would add to the points made by Brian Smith in that there are certain sectors like street lighting which are pretty mature now in the delivery of a PFI service; they are sometimes referred to as more commodity-type PFI arrangements. The highways maintenance service has yet to settle down to that level. There are still options under consideration, variations on the theme. What we should be looking for is what we really want out of a highways service that the private sector is capable of contracting to undertake under private finance arrangements.

This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.

The full transcript may be read here.

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On behalf of Eric Martlew, 3 Chatsworth Square Carlisle Cumbria CA1 1HB