Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Revealed - the cosy meeting to progress 'Bypass 2.0'

This week has seen the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities publish a document (opens PDF) outlining which major transport schemes will be prioritised in the region and how they will be funded. The story has hit the headlines and is in today's Manchester Evening News.

If you don't know much about the background to this report, then you'd assume the numerous references to a 'Mottram Bypass' would be shorthand for the Mottram/Hollingworth/Tintwistle Bypass, even though the latter scheme is referred to only once in the document (on page 4). Look more closely at some of the tables illustrating costs, and you'll find the 'Mottram Bypass' is described as now only costing £100 million - and you may be wondering 'what happened to the other £200 million'?

But if you take this in the context of the previous AGMA press release issued at the end of March and also the TMBC Executive meeting last month, then you'll quickly start to understand something new is on the table.

And now, we can shed more light upon exactly who has been up to what in terms of progressing this new 'Bypass 2.0' scheme. Well, almost.

First we must set down some context. On 19th March 2009, representatives from various agencies met at the Highways Agency's offices at City Tower in Manchester. The date is neatly sandwiched between the announcement of the deferral of funding for the original bypass scheme by 4NW on 12th March and the announcement by the Highways Agency that they were withdrawing from the PI on 24th March.

The purpose of the meeting was to salvage something from the 4NW decision, and the (redacted) minutes of the meeting - obtained by John Hall - can be read here.

Upon reading the minutes, it quickly becomes clear that all of the major players in the Bypass have no intention of simply dropping the plan for a road through Longdendale, whatever their public position may be. Whilst this is unsurprising for the likes of Tameside MBC, you do start to wonder what is going on when the Highways Agency play a major part, and as you read further into the minutes, you realise it is they that are playing a strange game.

The key section of the minutes lies in section 5 'Existing scheme', with paragraph 7 showing duplicity is at work with regard to the Public Inquiry (emphasis added):

"(redacted) explained that the Public Inquiry had been adjourned but was still live. A discussion took place about the potential for a Phased Inquiry based on any revised option, and it was agreed that there may be some value in exploring this, dependent on the shape of any emerging proposals"

Presumably, this anticipates that the last two years (and as yet undisclosed £X million) have been 'phase 1' which is now adjourned, and that another scheme can be drawn up and emerge in 'phase 2' when it is ready.

Looking back to March 24th, when the Highways Agency announced their withdrawal from the PI, one has to look at the wording of their statement which we emphasised at the time (again, our emphasis added):

The Highways Agency is withdrawing from the current Mottram-Tintwistle bypass Public Inquiry

We feel that these minutes are an important part of the puzzle falling into place: they demonstrate that the statements made by Alex Bywaters - the head of the Bypass project - in his email to the PI programme officer are wilfully misleading, and also that the HA have clearly not formally withdrawn from the PI yet because it doesn't suit the plans that this little crowd have for our Valley and the wider area. After all, the idea for a 'phased Inquiry' that they float means that there must be a period of transition: closing the current PI would simply be the end, and getting another PI running at a later date would clearly be much harder. It wouldn't be 'phase 2', it would simply be a second Inquiry.

One also has to note that 'alternative proposals' as described in the minutes means a road drawn up by the agencies, and not those presented to the Public Inquiry so far. The minutes go further in a section entitled 'Alternative proposals', which is clearly concerned with TMBC's 'Bypass 2.0', and makes clear the background behind AGMA's announcement in the press yesterday.

What we would be interested to learn is whether or not those individuals that had taken time and effort to propose 'alternatives' to the bypass or were due to do so at the PI (i.e. the Translink scheme for reopening Woodhead) have been invited to be present at these discussions? And if not, why not?

There's much more to these minutes than can be commented upon by us at this time (particularly the role of GMPTE, Faber Maunsell and Sir Howard Bernstein who the minutes suggest are joined at the hip), and one interesting point to note is that some of those present were due to meet the following day to progress 'Bypass 2.0'. We wonder what went on there?

Finally, there's the issue of the redacted names. There seems to be a spurious reason given for not releasing these names, so we're inviting readers to posit exactly who these people are. If this all looks plausible, at a later date, we'll amend the minutes to show who we think was there. So let's have your ideas.

This one will run and run...

Monday, May 11, 2009

Public Inquiry - Bywaters leaps into action!

We have proof positive that the Highways Agency simply haven't been paying attention to a word the Public Inquiry Inspector says.

For the past couple of weeks, stalwart objector John Hall has been emailing Persona Associates reminding them of the wishes of the Inspector regarding the closure of the Public Inquiry (you'll remember our blog about it the other week).

Last week, the programme officer Brenda Taplin was forced to email the Highways Agency Bypass chief Alex Bywaters to get some movement. Brenda very handily passed the email, along with Bywater's reply, on to John Hall, and it's available to view here (opens PDF).

For those who don't want to open the PDF, Brenda reminds Bywaters of the Inspector's request, and stresses the urgency in a very 'scolding' manner.

Bywaters replies, portraying himself as piggy in the middle: he says that, from his end, the respective legal departments of the Treasury and the Department for Transport are 'debating' something. He then asks Brenda if the Planning Inspectorate know what's going on!

The immediate question is - does this mean that neither the people in charge of the Bypass project nor the programme officer for the PI know what's going on? On first impressions, it would seem not*.

The other observation we can make is that Bywaters has failed to update the programme officer about the reasons for the delay. She has to email him, and then only after being mithered by an objector. Bywater's closing line "I want and end to this as much as the Inspector!" is ridiculous given that Taplin has had to remind him of the Inspector's request. It would seem to us that neither of them are motivated unless prodded by someone else.

Given that this charade is currently costing more than £7,000 a day, you wonder what it will take to get someone somewhere to do something to end this farce...

*As for what the DfT and Treasury are debating - well, we'll blog about our own views on what that is in the days to come.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

New bypass cost figures - going off the rails on a gravy train

Remember when we told you back in March that the deferral of the bypass funding would still entail costs of £1.1 million over the next 7 years?

Well the Highways Agency have now topped that. Yesterday saw a reply in Parliament to this question placed by the Shadow Transport Minister, Robert Goodwill MP:

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport with reference to the answer of 13 November 2008, Official Report, columns 1286-87W, on the Longdendale bypass, what costs have been incurred in connection with the A57/A628 Mottram to Tintwistle bypass since 13 November 2008.

Now you'll remember that 13th November 2008 was the last time Goodwill made enquiries about the cost of the scheme, which then stood at £16 million. The reply, forthcoming from Paul Clark MP, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, is gobsmacking:

For the period of 13 November 2008 to 30 April 2009, the A57/A628 Mottram to Tintwistle bypass scheme has incurred costs of approximately £1,176,000.

Working it out, that's 167 days (just under 6 months) - so the costs incurred since then have been £7,041.92 per day. And in the second part of his answer, Clark reveals what this has been spent on:

The costs include general project management, preparation for closure of the Public Inquiry, responding to general inquiries, project governance, staff costs, costs associated with the contract and finalising documents for the postponement of the project.

It seems to us that the phrase 'preparation for the closure of the Public Inquiry' is a bit of an abstract concept. After all, the Inspector has made it look like he has tried his best to bring the things to a close, and the Highways Agency have ignored it. Clearly the Gravy Train has no brakes, and the Government is in no mood to derail it. 

When one considers the announcements made in the Budget two weeks ago, and all the speculation regarding possible cuts to all kinds of budgets, it beggars belief that this road to nowhere is still trundling along, costing you and I nearly £300 for each hour that passes.