Road building grinds to a halt

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The Independent Online
THE NATIONAL road-building programme is grinding to a halt because of the chaotic state of the Highways Agency, the new body responsible for building roads.

Nearly half-way through its first financial year, the agency has started on only one out of the 22 schemes scheduled to begin this year, the A428 Bedford southern bypass. Paul Everitt, assistant director of the British Road Federation, said: 'We are very concerned. Last year, at the same stage, they had managed to start 13 out of 41 projects.'

Ministers are forcing the agency, which was created on 1 April, to cut its administration costs by 20 per cent. The chief executive, Lawrie Haynes, has proposed making 500 staff redundant, closing half a dozen regional offices and centralising all construction planning at one office in Solihull.

The road-building delays will delight the growing number of protesters against the roads programme. One local activist said: 'We've been told they're doing nothing on our scheme, but don't identify us in case they notice.'

The agency is also well behind on its other annual target of meeting 93 'milestones' - a specific stage in the roads process such as public inquiry or route publication - having so far reached just 16.

A spokesman for the agency said, 'We are on schedule to meet our targets', but one of its senior managers told the Independent on Sunday: 'Everything is getting delayed because the Department of Transport is wanting closer control of what we are doing than we would want. They want to approve everything we do.'

Mr Haynes, who is paid pounds 120,000 a year, hopes the cuts will reduce the agency's annual adminstration budget of pounds 83m by nearly pounds 20m, but has been told that there will be a one-off cost of pounds 60m for relocation and redundancies.

Already more than 700 staff have asked about redundancy terms and managers are worried that too many experienced staff will leave. One said: 'Ministers want to reduce the time between announcement of a scheme and its construction from the current level of 13 years. But if these plans go ahead, the interval will go up, not down.'

Next week, the civil service unions will write to the Secretary of State for Transport, Brian Mawhinney, warning of the problems the reorganisation will cause. One union official said: 'Work is paralysed by people waiting to know whether they still have a job or whether they will be moved.'

Many of the agency's 2,400 staff will be reluctant to move. As another official put it: 'If the Tories win the next election, the agency will be privatised, while Labour has said the roads programme will be shelved. They won't want the upheaval of moving just to lose their job.'

The unions have put forward alternative plans for savings. They point to the fact that road schemes end up on average costing over a third more than budgeted. Tighter cost control of the pounds 2bn-a-year budget would realise much bigger savings, they say.

It is not just the unions that are concerned. A memo written last month by the head of the agency's London Construction Programme, Sukhen Chatterjee, and leaked to New Civil Engineer magazine, warns that morale in the agency is at an all- time low, putting the roads programme in jeopardy.

Dr Chatterjee says that the programme cannot be administered from a single office because of the loss of local contacts and information, and stresses that any attempt to centralise, far from saving money, will lead to costs for travel and accommodation.

More broadly, Dr Chatterjee says: 'The agency does not seem to put any value to the loyalty and motivation of its staff . . . this is increasingly important as the justification of its road programme is being challenged by many respectable bodies in the country, including political parties. Without this loyalty and motivation, the chances of the agency winning highly contested public inquiries will be substantially diminished.'

Staff are very worried that the proposed new headquarters in Solihull would become the focus of constant protest by anti-roads activists: 'We'll have to run the gauntlet of protesters every day,' one said. The proposed office, formerly occupied by PowerGen, is also isolated and far from public-transport links. The Government's own property advisers, Property Holdings, formerly the Property Services Agency, has said it is an unsuitable site for a national headquarters.

The consultation process over Mr Haynes's plan is due to end on Monday week and a decision is due to be announced three days later. A union official said: 'That shows the consultation is just a sham.'

Mr Haynes was not available for comment because, according to a spokesman, 'We are too near the end of the consultation process.'