'Never, never land' fear as region lags behind

Douglas Kell, director of the Civil Engineering Contractors' Association (North East).

Douglas Kell, director of the Civil Engineering Contractors' Association (North East).

First published in Business News The Northern Echo: Photograph of the Author by

THE North-East risks becoming a "never, never land" where Government spending on public works lags far behind London and the south, a civil engineering spokesman has warned.

While improving workloads are bringing gradual recovery to the regions construction and civil engineering industry, the gap with other parts of the country is widening, said Douglas Kell, director of the Civil Engineering Contractors' Association (North East).

North-East growth in the building industry is estimated at two per cent but this follows a stagnant three years, and is way behind 10 per cent seen in the south. 

"So, you're comparing two per cent in a poor market against 10 per cent in a market of billions," said Mr Kell. "That would mean the gap is actually widening under cover of generalised figures and claims being put out about overall improvement.

"Our industry between the Tweed and the Tees feels the widening must be addressed if a never, never land is to be avoided," added Mr Kell who noted that three major North-East projects the Government is backing have failed to deliver the expected financial benefits.

Mr Kell explained: "Many of the announcements much publicised as part of the North-East's recovery have seen the size and value reduced. No-one, as far as I know, announced this reduction in value.

"Cheeseparing doesn't win headlines. Also, with the competitive climate in the North-East, the tender awards are lower than the original budget - the balance of available funding is not allocated towards additional work.

"Similarly, no construction has gone ahead on the much vaunted new bridge over the River Wear for Sunderland, which was to open next year. That promised £132m of investment originally, none of which the industry has seen to date."

Sunderland City Council last July scrapped as unaffordable its plans for the cable-stayed bridge near the city centre, designed to be the tallest in England and Wales. Bidders to build withdrew amid concerns about risk and complexity after the budget was cut.

The council has said it remains committed to delivering a bridge, and alternative plans amid the changed economic climate would be expected to offer a simplified design within existing funding.

But it will be five years next September since the council originally resolved to build a £133m crossing for four lanes of traffic. When this was revised down to £118m, the Department for Transport in December 2011 said it would contribute £82.5m.

The bridge linking Castletown and Pallion districts would reduce city centre traffic congestion and link Washington and the A19 with the port area. It's a major proposal of the city's programme to improve access to key workplaces. Now CECA has been told the latest on a revised design going ahead is that the council "is not in a position yet to advise but hopes to be at some stage soon."

On the railways, a planned upgrade of the Tyne and Wear Metro system remains a "tantalising opportunity", Mr Kell said, following the Government's decision to provide £350m over 11 years. "Most of this work, in fact, has yet to emerge," he added. 

The region has benefited in the past two years from two large energy-from-waste projects at Billingham and Haverton Hill on Teesside, and from building last year of the Teesside offshore wind farm being developed in the North Sea by EDF Energy Renewables.

But, says Mr Kell: "Except for the Tyne Tunnel opened in 2012, the region has been starved of investment in recent years - particularly over transport. As the only UK region not linked on the motorway network, it has not benefited from Highways Agency work going on.

Two major improvements are going ahead - but behind original schedule. One will upgrade the Western Bypass at Gateshead, where traffic is double the capacity originally planned for. The other is a flyover to relieve A19 traffic congestion from the Tyne Tunnel at Silverlink on North Tyneside. It's more than four years since the Highways Agency first aired proposals there.

The long campaign to dual the A1 north of Newcastle to the Scottish border has so far achieved only a promise of feasibility talks with the Government, so remains a distant project even if approved. And ongoing improvement of the A66 linking Teesside with the North West is being considered vital to the region if Teesport, now the UK's best connected feeder port, is to share in the notable business growth of Manchester and Warrington.

On the railways, Network Rail is massively investing across England, Wales and Scotland. But, said Mr Kell: "Much of the money in England has gone to the South-East for the Crossrail and Thameslink developments, and to the West Coast main line benefiting Scotland also.

"Another £650m is going into two further Scottish projects, and we must expect the South West of England to get priority consideration now to restore its flood ravaged rail connections."

He called on the regions Local Enterprise Partnerships to help fight the North-East's corner.

 

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