Mixed messages coming out of Wiltshire when it comes to spending taxpayers’ money on expensive road projects. On one hand, it’s good to hear that Swindon Borough Council’s plans to spend £50m on a dual carriage way have been slapped down in favour of a cheaper option. But plans to spend £2b on the A303, including a road tunnel past Stonehenge—as part of the government’s recently announced flagship expenditure on infrastructure—is going ahead despite past concerns about this being too expensive.
Swindon Borough councillors were told to think again when their planned dual carriageway in north Swindon was estimated to cost £50m. Instead, they’ve got their heads together and have come up with a better, cheaper scheme for upgrading the existing road system that will cost a more reasonable £15m. The only problem was that the feasibility study for the cheaper option cost £600,000. Ooops!
Meanwhile, at World Heritage site Stonehenge, public money is no object and being sprayed around in a way not seen since before the world financial crash in 2008. Which is curious because back in the heyday of Blair and Brown going on a spending spree with our money, the idea of building a tunnel for the A303 past the prehistoric stones was rejected as being too costly. The decision to cancel the tunnel came when the government announced that the projected costs had spiralled from £183m to £460m.
‘Our recognition of the importance of Stonehenge as a World Heritage site remains unchanged,’ said the roads minister at the time, ‘but given the scale of the cost increase, we have to re-examine whether the scheme still represents value for money.’
So why is a road project too hot to handle in the good times, now considered an excellent use of public money in an age of austerity and prudence? Especially when its estimated cost—as part of the whole A303 upgrade project—has quadrupled to £2b since it was rejected back in 2005. Could it be that a survey conducted in 2012 found that more than 90% of commuters and businesses in the South West back improvements to the A303 and that’s an awful lot of potentially happy voters?
‘It’s a significant amount of money to spend,’ says a less than impressed former local councillor, who seemed doubtful of the government's ability to deliver on promises this late into the parliament.
Tim Newark, South West TaxPayers’ Alliance