A358 – Highways England grilled
The Public Accounts Committee today enjoyed putting the metaphorical thumbscrews on Highways England (HE) boss, Jim O’Sullivan. Anne Marie Morris clearly enjoyed the chance to practise an expression or two of disbelief as Mr O’Sullivan stuttered through a non-explanation as to how HE had managed to come up with a public consultation which offered only one route option for joining the A358 to the M5.
As Chair of the Committee, Meg Hillier weighed in we also learned that the MP for Bridgwater has some interesting ideas. Apparently, according Ms Hillier, these involve spending money on the M5 rather than the A358. She noted “Full project funding (for the A358) is not yet approved. The figures (for the cost) are very vague and Ian Liddell Grainger MP has written to us quite rightly pointing out that Highways England estimate of the real cost of the road is manifestly vague. Anything, and here he quotes, between £250m and £500m is the figure on the HE website.”
She went on relentlessly: Why is the information not clear on your website Mr O’Sullivan?
Isn’t it really fair and right that the public know what the cost is likely to be?
And we’ve got a fairly clear estimate here in an agreed report from the NAO. It was £251m now its £452m. Wouldn’t it be more honest to put the higher figure in now?
Mr Liddell Grainger is not so much in favour of the A358, he’s asking us to ask why you are not investing your precious capital allocation to upgrade the M5?
Or are you planning to do that?
This was becoming deeply uncomfortable for Mr O Sullivan. By the time he was asked about whether the Henlade bypass was funded, all he could offer was “I don’t know.”
Ms Hillier settled for asking him to “write to us about that as we have had some queries from people.”
What have we learned? That HE are in a mess. That completion of the A358 is (apparently – though Mr O’Sullivan was far from clear) funded, but it really will cost 80% more than the initial budget. And finally the date for opening the new A358 to traffic moved from summer 2024 to “possibly spring 2025”. All in the course of one conversation.