Posted by: wesleyjohnston | December 3, 2012

A5 Delays – What Could The Unspent Money Be Used For?

The DRD have a very uncomfortable problem. Their scheme to provide dual-carriageway upgrades to two stretches of the A5 (Derry to Strabane and Ballygawley to Omagh) were supposed to get underway in October 2012, but have now been put on hold indefinitely due to the legal challenge that has been brought by the Alternative A5 Alliance, an umbrella organisation representing 135 landowners and others adversely affected. The preliminary court hearing last week simply determined how much costs each side should pay if they lost. The next hearing is not until January (although a separate injunction to halt advanced site works is to be heard before Christmas). Progress on settling this case is tear-jerkingly slow.

The Dilemma

The DRD’s problem is that they have a fixed budget per year. If they don’t spend it, the money goes back to the Executive (and potentially to Westminster). They can’t simply stick it in the bank and use it next year they way you or I could. It’s a case of use it or lose it. How much are we talking? Well, apparently the DRD is having to return £10,000,000 per month to the Executive due to the delay, plus pay an additional £750,000 in interest. This is an awful position for them to be in.

The DRD have almost all their eggs in one basket by committing to the A5 scheme. The new road construction budget for the period 2012 to 2015 is to be spent entirely on just five schemes:

  • A5 Derry to Strabane (on hold due to legal challenge) – £170m
  • A5 Ballygawley to Omagh (on hold due to legal challenge) – £160m
  • A32 Cherrymount Link Enniskillen (almost completed) – £13m
  • A2 Shore Road at Greenisland (currently out to tender, to begin next summer) – £57m
  • A8 dualling (underway) – £120m

As you can see, well over half of the budget is committed to the A5. If the A5 can’t go ahead, DRD stands to have an incredibly large under-spend on roads infrastructure, which is very bad news.

The Options

What can the DRD do? Well, they can do one of three things:

  1. Suck it up. Return the money to the Executive and write it off as an unfortunate incident. In this scenario, Northern Ireland transport potentially loses tens of millions of pounds in infrastructure investment.
  2. Finish the legal challenge as quickly as possible. They are presumably trying to do this, but it’s out of their hands and entirely up to the judiciary to decide the timescale. There is also the possibility of further legal action and further delays.
  3. Use the money elsewhere.

This final option is the one that makes most sense financially and pragmatically. Since the money was earmarked for the A5, there is of course the small matter of getting the Executive (and potentially Westminster) to agree to its reallocation, but there is no good reason why this should not be forthcoming. They could attempt to reallocate the money to something like structural maintenance, but this would present its own logistical problems for the construction sector with regard to suddenly bringing forward a very large number of small maintenance schemes.

So the question is ‘simply’ one of finding a new road scheme that could be progressed to construction at short notice. The problem is that you can’t simply decide at short notice to proceed with a completely different road proposal. Roads Service are, quite rightly, tied to very complex and long-drawn-out legal and financial processes. Typically a road scheme has to progress through a series of steps which usually include:

  1. Investigating preliminary options – at least a year
  2. Public consultation, followed by deciding on a preferred option – another year
  3. Draft legal orders published and public inquiry held – another year
  4. Assuming scheme survives public inquiry, DRD refine scheme in line with recommendations – 6 months or more
  5. Vesting land and tender process (to select a contractor) – 9 months
  6. Construction

So unless a scheme is at least at stage 4, there is no chance of it going ahead at short notice. Although there is a huge list of schemes in planning, only a small number are this advanced. Some schemes that are popular with the public, like the M2/M3/Westlink flyover proposal, are still only at stage 2 and are not options for spending the surplus A5 cash. Let’s list the ones that are options:

A6 Randalstown to Castledawson dualling (£100-120m). The upgrade of the infamous Moneynick Road, and on to Castledawson is very well advanced. Its public inquiry was held 2007, but a change to the design required a second public inquiry which was held in February 2012. The inspector has submitted his report and the DRD is due to publish its response before Christmas. This scheme is therefore at the end of stage 4 above. There is the potential for it to be ready to go to construction as soon as a tendering process can be put in place. So you could potentially see this scheme on the ground by Autumn 2013. This scheme would absorb almost a years’ worth of surplus A5 cash.

A6 Dungiven to Derry dualling (£350-390m). This scheme is an upgrade of the entire A6 from Dungiven to Londonderry, including a new bypass of Dungiven which is now the only town on the Belfast-Derry route that lacks one. At over £350m, the scheme is too expensive to progress in full with the spare A5 cash, but there is a possibility of detaching the Dungiven Bypass section and proceeding with it separately. DRD have already anticipated this possibility and have a design already drawn up to go ahead with this more limited scheme. Unfortunately the public inquiry was only held in September 2012 and the report is not due to be submitted until March 2013. So this scheme is at the end of stage 3 above. Allowing time for the DRD to respond and then an tendering process, this scheme could be on the ground by Summer 2014. This may be too far in the future to be much use for the spare A5 cash.

A55 Outer Ring widening at Knock (£12-16m). This scheme sees the last two-lane part of the Outer Ring in east Belfast upgraded to four lanes with right-turn pockets. Of the three schemes mentioned, this one is the most advanced. Its public inquiry was held in November 2010 and the DRD’s response published in September 2012. As of now, the vesting orders are basically “parked” pending construction. There is every possibility that this scheme could be underway by the Autumn of 2013 if a tendering process started straight away. The down side is that this scheme is so ‘cheap’ that it couldn’t really absorb more than about 6 weeks’ worth of surplus A5 cash. But if it was that or lose the cash, it might still be worth progressing.

A26 dualling Glarryford to A44 Drones Road (£50-70m). This scheme sees another stretch of the heavily used A26 between Ballymena and Ballymoney upgraded. Unfortunately it is only at the middle of stage 3 above, since its public inquiry was only held four weeks ago. Realistically, the soonest this scheme could be on the ground is the very end of 2014 or early 2015, which is just too far away to be of any use.

A31 Magherafelt Bypass (£36m). This scheme would see a long-anticpated bypass built round the east side of the town. The scheme had its public inquiry in 2009, and this was published in 2010. The scheme is now sitting “parked” at the end of stage 5 above. Realistically, it too could be underway by the Autumn of 2013 if a tendering process started straight away.

Belfast Rapid Transit (£99m). This scheme would see a bus-based rapid transit system introduced to Belfast on three routes(east, west and Titanic Quarter). Unfortunately it is still at a relatively early stage of development, with its outline business case published in November 2012. It has not had a public inquiry, and therefore construction would probably not be possible until 2015, even if all the stops were pulled out in the planning process. It is therefore unlikely that this scheme could take advantage of the surplus A5 cash.

Summary

In summary, therefore, the three most suitable candidates for early implementation with the surplus A5 cash are:

  • A6 Randalstown to Castledawson
  • A55 Outer Ring at Knock, Belfast
  • A31 Magherafelt Bypass

with the A6 Dungiven Bypass also being suitable, but on a slightly longer timeframe.

With no sign of the legal challenge being settled soon, I would expect to hear some kind of announcement on this subject before too much more time passes.

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Responses

  1. […] So it seems likely that some other road schemes will go ahead at relatively short notice. Last year I blogged about the most likely candidates to go ahead at short notice, which I listed […]


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