Dunstable, a small town tragedy or how not to do things

When the National Audit Office’s report on something bizarrely named ‘the A5 queue relocation scheme’ plopped into my inbox, I rather wondered why such a seemingly insignificant matter had been the subject of a study by the government’s major watchdog.

There was, though, a good reason for it. The issues surrounding this seemingly insignificant scheme which cost just £2m, are illustrative of a far wider range of failings by the Highways Agency. It would almost be funny if it were not so serious for the poor people of Dunstable, a town blighted by built on the old roman road that is now the A5. The A5 indeed bisects the town and is at many times in the day a lengthy traffic jam on a two lane highway. Don’t go there if you are in a hurry. Occasionally, if there are problems on the M1 it becomes the epicentre of a huge traffic jam of nightmarish proportions.

The ‘queue relocation’ scheme was supposed to do just that – move the permanent queue further out of town and improve traffic flows as well as reducing crossing times for pedestrians. As a by product, it was supposed to reduce accidents and lessen noise and pollution.

But it has done none of these things. Indeed, according to the report, ‘the modifications the Agency made to the scheme have resulted in busier roads and longer waits at pedestrian crossings’. It now takes on average over a minute longer to get through the town resulting in 126,000 hours of longer travel for drivers in the first year – at the rate used to value schemes, £21 86 per hour of a car driver’s time, that represents a staggering £2.75m lost annually and that will continue each year. So the scheme has had a massive disbenefit.

Yet, when the scheme was proposed, it was suggested that time savings valued in this way would meet 16 per cent of its costs in the first year which suggested that the expenditure on the whole scheme would be recovered within six years. In fact, after work started that was recalculated to just 8 per cent, with the addition of ‘unquantiable ancillary benefits including improved pedestrianised areas with raised planting beds and seating, disabled parking facilities, improve bus lay-bys’ and the like. As I have written many times, this sort of modelling is pure guess work and this sort of experience shows it to be a dishonest sham.

Inevitably, these supposed benefits were further reduced by the scheme costing nearly 50 per cent more than it had been budgeted for, £2m instead of £1.4m, and taking two years longer to complete than planned.

So £2m worth of taxpayers money has made transport worse in Dunstable thanks to the incompetence of an Agency that did not listen to local ‘stakeholders’. The NAO points out a number of lessons, such as carrying out proper modelling to examine rat running but actually there are a couple of bigger issues arising from this study.

First, it is clear that a national body like the Highways Agency should not be undertaking small local schemes like this at all, even when they happen to be on a major highway.

Secondly, this sad tale begs the question of value for money of a lot of road schemes. What it they were all given this type of detailed scrutiny? One suspects that the whole road-based strategy of the Department for Transport might be put into question.

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