A senior member of Leeds City Council has called on the Government to end its “radio silence” on funding for transport schemes in the city, writes Richard Beecham.
The comments were made during an item at the Leeds City Council executive board meeting on a proposed £31m rebuild of the crumbling Regent Street flyover.
Members of the panel heard how extra pressure had been placed on the authority’s transport improvement works elsewhere in the city due to the Covid-19 crisis and time limits on certain government grants.
Other government grants related to the Leeds Transport Improvement Plan have to be spent by March 2021, or be taken back by central government.
The leader of the authority’s Liberal Democrats group, Coun Stewart Golton, said more pressure should be put on government to extend the deadlines for other government-funded road schemes due to delays caused by the Covid-19 lockdown.
Coun Golton said:
“What strikes me about this is the fact that we have been very polite in our response to government in its radio silence in response to funding.
“The lack of confirmation on the flexibility of Leeds transport investment deadlines and the lack of clarity on this scheme. It seems like theirs is a two-speed cabinet with [Chancellor] Rishi Sunak doing very well at responding in front of him but the Department for Transport not doing as well.
“That confirmation on the time scale is crucial to this. The pressure should be laid at the door of Grant Shapps, rather than the contractors who will be under strain themselves.
“I would support you in being a little bit louder about the funding.”
The authority’s head of transport and planning Lisa Mulherin had told the panel that a decision had been expected by the government on whether to grant £24m to go towards the Regent Street scheme by December 2019, but that this was recently put back to this coming summer.
But she added the need to rebuild the 1960s structure was so urgent, that the panel needed to agree to proceed ‘at risk’ with the work, on the expectation that government would provide the funding later this year. She said:
“This is to deliver essential work for public safety – it has critical concerns for load bearing and capacity.
“We have been seeking funds for 12-18 months. The total costs of designs is 31m – £24m [is expected to be] from government.
“The DfT advised Leeds City Council the decision would not be taken until this summer. The replacement of the bridge can’t be delayed any longer.
“The council should proceed at risk.”
She claimed much of the £31m would be comprised of council borrowing, adding council leader Judith Blake would write to transport secretary Grant Shapps echoing the concerns.
Armley Gyratory concerns
During a discussion on the item, leader of the authority’s Conservatives group Coun Andrew Carter warned that this scheme was set to take place at the same time as other road improvement works in the city, including Armley Gyratory and City Square. He said:
“We’re between a rock and a hard place – I can see no alternative than to proceed at risk.
“All members need to be aware that this scheme as is planned would be on site during other works at Armley Gyratory, City Square and Neville Street. All these schemes at some time coinciding is going to be a nightmare – I don’t think we can do this without a huge disruption during the economic recovery.
“What penalties will we put in place on potential developers if there are overruns? We need to be extremely careful with these schemes, but the crucial work needs to be done first and the minimising of disruption needs to be important.”
Coun Blake said she had spoken to Mr Shapps to ask for extensions on the March 2021 deadline for ringfenced transport spending.
The council’s head of city development Martin Farrington added:
“On the point of the number of schemes brought forward, this is one we are alive to, we are reducing the strain on an number of those schemes. We need to commit the money by March 2021, so any extension we can get from government will help.
“One of the reasons why we want to bring the [Regent Street flyover] scheme forward now is health and safety issues, but also to minimise any overlap with Armley Gyratory works.
“On the point of overruns, there will be measures in place in the contracts for those. In the contexts of the current crisis we are in, we need to be careful before we get too contractual because this may well bounce back on us.”