In July 2016, local group Combe Haven Defenders (CHD) sent out a press release demanding to know why SeaChange Sussex were forecasting that the cost of the Queensway Gateway road (QGR) would be only £6m, a £9m reduction on the original £15m predicted cost.
CHD pointed out that the original cost of £15m was about right for a road of that size, based on Campaign for Better Transport figures for the cost of new roads. It was also very close, per km, to the cost of the Bexhill Hastings Link Road. But at £6m, the new cost of the QGR was only 40% of what one might expect the road to cost. The figures simply didn’t add up.
Project risk now ‘high’
Now, it would appear that CHD were right: the QGR is going to cost more (how much more we don’t yet know) than £6m. A report to road funder the South East Local Enterprise Partnership on 22 September 2017 rates the project risk as ‘high’ and reveals (page 119) that:
‘Land remediation has come to and [sic] end and construction of the embankment and [sic] is due for completion. Designs for the A21 connection are still being considered. Spend for this financial [sic] is considered secure but additional funding my [sic] be sought for the completion of the road dependant [sic] on the outcomes of value engineering excercises [sic]’ (italics added).
We’ll set aside the issue of whether SELEP should spend some of its money on a proofreader. The report goes on:
‘Higher than expected tender returns for phase 2 of the construction as well as issues surrounding connection to the A21 have created the need for a redesign which could have significant planning implications‘ (italics added).
And just so we’re perfectly clear:
‘[Local Growth Fund] spend in this financial year is secure but project overspend is likely with more funding required in 2018/19‘ (emphasis added).
Leftovers transferred to another underfunded road
So why did SeaChange Sussex reduce the predicted cost of the road so drastically? Simple: because they wanted SELEP to agree to transfer the ‘leftover’ £9m to the North Bexhill Access Road (NBAR). The amount allocated to that very large road at the time was a miserly £5m, and it was clear that it couldn’t be built for that price. So SeaChange claimed that they’d have so much money left over from the QGR that they could afford to throw £9m at the NBAR. Even then, however, the NBAR appeared seriously underfunded and in recent weeks we’ve seen signs that costcutting measures have already begun.
Why do costs keep rising? Because they were artificially low in the first place
So here’s what it looks like to us: There’s a limited pot of money available for infrastructure projects throughout the SELEP region (which covers Essex, Kent, Medway, Southend and Thurrock as well as East Sussex). By putting in low bids for its project, whilst at the same time claiming frankly incredible numbers for job creation (such as at North Queensway), SeaChange is given the money it needs to start the project. Along the way, the costs rise – but by then, the trees have been felled and major construction has been started, and it would make no sense (at least in their view, and no doubt that of SELEP) to abandon the project – so the only way to get it finished is to throw more public money at it.
It’s a pretty dishonest strategy – but one which, so far, appears to be working.