Bypass decision shows county needs change of heart on major road projects
- Credit: Archant
The decision by the government to reject Suffolk County Council’s plans for a Four Villages’ Bypass was very disappointing for the communities concerned – but really should have come as no surprise to anybody.
I remember first reporting on the Four Villages' Bypass proposal in the 1980s, It wasn't new then but I suspect this decision really is the final nail in its coffin.
If that is right, then it really needs to be a wake-up call for Suffolk County Council and residents of this part of the world in general - they need to understand that what Dr Dan Poulter describes as a "scattergun approach" to developing road projects is a recipe for failure.
What was crystal clear from the Department for Transport's press release about its rejection of the Four Villages' Bypass was that the government is still totally hacked off by county's failure to go ahead with the Upper Orwell Crossing project in Ipswich.
Reading that you really didn't need Dr Poulter, or any other MP for that matter, to make the point that the government had lost faith in Suffolk Highways' ability to deliver major infrastructure projects.
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Having said that, I do think it is totally unfair to blame the current leadership of the county council for the problem. Matthew Hicks became leader of the authority last May at more or less the same time as Nicola Beach became chief executive.
Mr Hicks had been a member of the cabinet that signed off the Upper Orwell Crossings, but his brief had not included that project - it was his predecessor who should carry the can for the fact that the county showed apparent incompetence in coming up with figures that were tens of millions of pounds away from the true cost.
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It was a tough decision to pull the project - and it was a decision that was bound to put a black mark beside Suffolk's name in government files. But it was a decision that many feel had to be taken if they weren't to drive the county into Northamptonshire-style bankruptcy.
However this does mean Suffolk really has to work very hard with everyone if it is going to make a case to the government for new products - and has to come up with a cast-iron case.
Many felt the Four Villages' Bypass was the council's best chance of making a business case to the Department for Transport - it was seen as vital to improve connections between Lowestoft and London as well as being essential if Sizewell C is built.
Of course this week's news that EDF can't make the sums add up for the proposed new carbuncle on the Suffolk coast without a subsidy from every home in the country makes the chances of that going ahead even more remote - but its prospect is still blighting communities across east Suffolk.
What the decision on the Four Villages' Bypass also means is, of course, that the proposal to build an Ipswich Northern Relief Road is now dead - or at least moribund for a generation.
If the government isn't prepared to consider funding a road that would cost an estimated £133m (okay, it's a Suffolk County Council estimate so probably no one believed it anyway!) what are the chances of its funding an uncosted road that many believe could cost up to £1bn?
It's a road that could only be built if it serviced a new town nearly the size of Bury St Edmunds along the Fynn Valley - and it's a road that is certain to run into opposition from the district council whose area it runs through, Mid Suffolk.
I know former Mid Suffolk leader Nick Gowrley was one of those who signed the original pledge of support for the road, but what are the chances of the district now following suit?
The Tories lost their majority and run the council through the casting vote of the chair. The Greens and Liberal Democrats who now have an equal number of seats have always been opposed to it - and what are the chances of Conservative councillors living near the road backing the proposal in the teeth of opposition from their constituents?
I understand many Conservatives in East Suffolk, where the rest of the road passes through, are also deeply concerned about its effect on the environment - and these council voices are amplified by Dr Poulter whose constituency includes the entire route.
Faced with that opposition and a potentially massive cost, the county council would be well advised to cut its losses, put the plans for the road in the deep freeze before it wastes any more on pointless preparations and starts looking at other ways of keeping the area moving.