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Treasury minister's role in road funding 'in danger of looking like pork barrel politics'

Sian Berry's picture

12 August 2013: As reported by the FT, we have uncovered emails that show a £290 million road in a marginal constituency was funded thanks to the intervention of Danny Alexander.

FT story on Manchester roadThe A6-Manchester Airport Relief Road is a £290 million dual carriageway through green belt land between the A6 in Stockport and Manchester Airport at the M56. It was pushed into the Department for Transport’s local major schemes funding programme after this programme was officially closed, getting an initial commitment of £165 million in DfT funding in the Autumn Statement of November 2011 - much to the surprise and concern of Campaign for Better Transport and local campaigners.

Using Freedom of Information, our campaigners obtained emails between the Department for Transport and the Treasury between January and December 2011, and these show the road was pushed into the programme behind closed doors with the help of Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, and that the road was accepted into the programme before even a draft business case was available.

The Financial Times was given our evidence and reported the story this weekend, focusing on the fact the road is called the 'Cheadle constituency link road' in some of the emails, and the Cheadle constituency is a marginal Liberal Democrat seat. Read the story here (free registration needed)

We have now produced a briefing showing the key facts contained in the emails that were released and how the activities of Treasury ministers behind the scenes contrasts with the relatively open and accountable 'Development Pool' process run by the DfT. The key facts from this briefing, and the contrast with the Development Pool are below.

Read the full briefing (pdf)

See the emails released under FOI (and also see 'similar requests' on the right of the page)

What the released emails reveal about the decision to fund the Manchester Airport Link Road:

  • The documents and emails obtained under FOI show that the promotion of the road to the DfT was primarily done through the Treasury, led by Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury.
  • None of the information in the emails was publicly available before our FOI request, and the process of getting funding for this road was carried out behind closed doors, completely bypassing the open and public-facing Development Pool scheme assessment process being conducted by the DfT at the same time.
  • In the documents, reference is made to "a number of meetings with Norman Baker MP and Danny Alexander MP" in early 2011 and there are regular emails to the DfT from the Treasury through the year chasing up progress on the road. The Treasury emails mention interest in the scheme from "Our spads" [Special Advisors, political appointments] and the "CST" [Chief Secretary to the Treasury] himself.
  • Further evidence that the road is being pushed into the DfT programme by Danny Alexander and LibDem MPs is that the road is referred to in one of the Treasury emails as the "Cheadle constituency link road". The MP for Cheadle is Mark Hunter, LibDem Deputy Chief Whip. Cheadle is a LibDem/Conservative marginal seat.

It is also clear from these emails, that the decision to allow the road into the programme, as revealed in the Autumn Statement, was based upon very little information – far short of the detailed 'Best and Final Bid' documents scheme promoters in the legitimate Development Pool process were made to provide.

  • Messages between the DfT and Stockport MBC (SMBC) two weeks after the Autumn Statement decision was announced show that a business case had not been received by the DfT and that only 'draft' business case documents would be able to be provided by SMBC by the end of December 2011, more than a month after the Autumn Statement.
  • The DfT’s FOI response also says this in reply to our request for the release of the business case: "Discussion between officials at the time of the consideration of the scheme in the Autumn Statement pre date this process and was based on work in progress."

Importantly, unlike the other road schemes named in the Autumn Statement and National Infrastructure Plan, the Manchester Airport road was not part of existing Highways Agency plans (it’s not a trunk road) or a proposal that was being considered for the DfT's official local authority transport funding programme. This 'local major schemes'  programme was in the process of being wound down, with a final group of council propsals – known as the 'Development Pool' - undergoing a detailed process of assessment during 2011.

Along with local campaigners and the public, we took part in this process, submitting comments on detailed business cases and objections to the worst schemes (see our pages on the Development Pool process here) This group of schemes did not include the Manchester Airport Link Road and the road was not even in the running to enter the programme.

There's also the issue that the road was pushed through without a proper process of considering other options that might improve transport in the area for less money and in a more sustainable way. With the road now moving towards applying for planning permission, we've worked with North West Transport Roundtable to show how many other options, including rail and metrolink, have been ignored while this project was prioritised. Read our critique here (pdf).

All in all, we are very concerned about the unfair and unaccountable way this huge and expensive road scheme was allowed late entry into a DfT funding stream that had already been closed to new entrants.

It's particularly unfair to other local authorities whose transport projects – for new rail, bus and tram services, as well as other road schemes – had been dropped in the Comprehensive Spending Review of 2010 and in the two separate stages of selection for schemes to be in the final round of the DfT's programme.

As I told the FT:

"It’s now clear that this road was given special treatment and wasn’t part of the open and transparent process which other public transport and road proposals went through. None of us were ever told a Manchester Airport road was in the running for funds and we would have strongly opposed this unnecessary dual carriageway driven through the green belt. To the other councils around the country who lost out, and to the public at large, this is in danger of looking like pork-barrel politics."