Uncertainty about funding needs to be resolved before next year, says the report by the public accounts committee (PAC). The MPs urge the DfT and Highways England to come up with alternative funding arrangements in case the Treasury does not confirm longer-term funding by the end of the year.
The report says that, after several failed attempts, the government believes that it now has a Stonehenge tunnel scheme that is affordable, deliverable and has the support of heritage and environmental bodies. However, decisions on how to fund the project are on the critical path for the planned opening date of 2026 and are now at the mercy of the “much-awaited” spending review. Delaying those decisions further will jeopardise the opening date.
Deputy PAC chair Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown said that government plans to open the Stonehenge tunnel by 2026 remain in doubt until a clear decision is made on how to fund the £1.7bn scheme. “To meet the proposed timetable a funding decision is needed by the end of this year,” he said. “Stonehenge is one of the world’s greatest heritage sites. There is a pressing need for the Department for Transport and Highways England to set out exactly what benefits visitors and local people near the site can expect to see as a result of the scheme.
“The tunnel is just one part of major plans to the upgrade the A303 corridor to support economic growth in the South West. However, the government’s piecemeal approach makes it hard to show the programme is value for money. Unless there is a co-ordinated approach to all eight of the proposed projects there is a risk that traffic jams will be merely shunted along the road.”
The Stonehenge tunnel project was to be financed under the PF2 private finance initiative but in October 2018 the chancellor cancelled future private finance deals, including for this project. The DfT has said that it and HM Treasury remain committed to the project; the Treasury has released funding of £21.5m during 2019-20 to allow the project to keep going. However, the DfT does not expect to fund the project from its £25.3bn draft funding envelope for roads from 2020 to 2025. Instead, it intends to make a case to the Treasury for additional funding for the project as part of the next spending review, the timing of which is still uncertain. Highways England says that it must have funding certainty by the end of the year if it is to begin the commercial process to find a construction contractor in the first quarter of next year and keep to its 2026 target opening date. The MPs says that the DfT and Highways England must plan for what alternative funding arrangements or delivery plans it could put in place, in the event that HM Treasury does not confirm longer term funding by the end of the year.
So far, the DfT has only committed to starting three out of the eight projects required along the A303 route. With improvements to only some parts of the road corridor, traffic congestion is likely to be eased at some points but pushed to other sections of the road, the report finds. Similarly, the contribution of any one project to enabling growth in jobs and housing is undermined if neighbouring projects to provide a free-flowing and reliable road connection are not given the go-ahead, it says.
The MPs recommend that the DfT and Highways England should set out how assessment of business cases for individual projects will take account of benefits that depend on the completion of other projects, which may or may not be subsequently approved.
Clifton-Brown said: “It will be extremely challenging to deliver the South West road improvements to cost and time. My committee knows from bitter experience that Transport do not have a good record in delivering major projects punctually.” He added that the committee expects government to update it on the expected cost and opening dates.