29 April 2013
Newly released internal Department for Transport documents show that the Treasury put significant pressure on the Department for Transport to approve £56m of government spending on the controversial Bexhill-Hastings Link Road ahead of the 2012 Budget.
Briefing documents from department officials to local transport minister Norman Baker, show that the department was forced into making an early decision in favour of funding the road in order to meet Treasury deadlines. The final document, from two days before George Osborne's 21st March Budget speech tells Mr Baker a decision from him is now "Urgent, to inform potential Budget announcement."
The briefing from the previous week, on 14th March makes it clear that making a quick decision means approving the road as the officials needed more time to consider other options. The document tells the minister, "you could be ready to announce this in the Budget if you went for option 1" (approval for the road) but not a second option to "decline funding approval for the Bexhill Hastings Link Road and instead offer support for the development of a package of alternative transport measures of benefit to the area."
Sian Berry, from the Roads to Nowhere campaign at Campaign for Better Transport said
"These documents make it very clear that the Treasury forced through the Bexhill Hastings Link Road by pressuring the Department for Transport to decide on funding before they had finished looking at other, less damaging, options. This was despite the fact the documents also conclude that the road would not be good value for money. We have seen similar behind-the-scenes influence on funding for the Manchester Airport Link Road, and a pattern is emerging of new roads being pushed through by the Treasury without support of senior people in the Department for Transport."
Derrick Coffee of the Hastings Alliance said
"The documents released today show a transition from evidence-based decision-making to an ‘evidence free zone’. At the centre of this shift is chancellor Osborne and his desire to throw scarce public funds at speculative schemes like the Bexhill to Hastings Link Road. Remarkably, the option to develop a range of more sustainable non-link road alternatives, including public transport improvements, was on the table until two days before the approval of the Link Road funding was announced. These could have delivered a showcase for high quality alternatives at a fraction of the cost and with little environmental damage. Instead, the chancellor’s interference means the cherished Combe Haven Valley could soon to be devastated by the road."
The two briefing documents, written on 14th and 19th March 2012, were released in full by the DfT today after a complaint by the Hastings Alliance to the Information Commissioners Office. In its response to the Alliance's Freedom of Information request, the department initially redacted key parts of the advice to Ministers from senior civil servants in the Department for Transport.
The redacted documents stated that the Bexhill Hastings Link Road offers only low or medium value for money and that alternatives had not yet been properly considered, but the final conclusions of the documents and the key facts about the pressure to make a decision before the 2012 Budget had been removed.
1. The Hastings Alliance submitted a Freedom of Information request in April 2012 asking for the DfT’s assessment of the road. After an intervention from the Information Commissioner's Office, this information was released by the Department for Transport on 29 April 2013.
This shows concerns over the value for money offered by the scheme and apparent pressure from the Treasury for a decision to made two days before the 2013 Budget Statement on 21 March.
2. Background information about the Bexhill Hastings road project can be found on the Campaign for Better Transport website.
3. The Manchester Airport Link Road is an example of a unconventional funding decision. This road was pushed into the DfT’s local major schemes funding programme behind closed doors and after this programme was officially closed.