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Projects held back by central body ...
Projects held back by central body

By Mark Smulian

The body charged with making highways departments more efficient is beset by 'incompetence and disorganisation', MPs have found.

In scorching criticism, the commons transport committee claims the Highways Agency, which manages trunk roads and motorways, has 'no grip on the costs of its major roads projects'.

This is deeply embarrassing for the agency, which the government appointed to promote councils' efficiency under the Gershon process.

Some agency cost overruns have been such that they threaten 'an irresponsible and unacceptable waste of public money,' the MPs say.

Chris Tunstall, deputy chief executive of Durham CC, said: 'It is all slightly ironic in view of the organisation's position leading efficiency.

'To be fair, the agency has been hit with the same inflationary pressures for materials as the rest of us, but I have never seen any proof for its claim that its maintenance framework contracts actually save money.'

Durham is among councils hit by the agency's use of its 'article 14' power to block planning permission where it thinks projects would generate excess traffic on its roads.

MPs warn the agency cannot, 'sit complacently back and do nothing' about these delays to vital regeneration work.

The issue is acute in the north-east, because land values are so low that developers feel unable to afford contributions to road improvements sought by the agency.

Agency objections caused 18 months' delay to the Victoria Harbour project in Hartlepool, and jeopardised a£56m airport investment near Darlington, MPs heard from the Tees Valley Joint Strategy Unit, which is owned by five councils.

Director John Lowther said: 'The Highways Agency takes so long to process the information that there is a danger that investors will go elsewhere.

'It is a failure of joined-up government. The Treasury has a public service agreement target to reduce inequalities between north and south, but the Department for Transport seems to go against it.'

The DfT said it 'takes the performance of all its agencies seriously'.

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