How to lose £60 million, while spending an extra £220 million

CECA Chief Executive Alasdair Reisner

Do you ever get the feeling of deja vu? The feeling that you have already seen something before struck me last week when I saw the announcement that the A38 Derby Junctions scheme had been given the green light.

Something about the name of the scheme struck a chord. A long, long time ago, before I worked for the CECA I was a journalist at Construction News. At the time the highways sector was one of the beats that I covered. But surely this couldn’t be the same scheme that I had written about nearly 20 years ago?

A quick scan through the archives confirmed that it was. Back in 2006 I covered the Highways Agency (an organisation that has rebranded twice in the intervening period) getting funding to press ahead with the £30 million Derby Junctions scheme. My copy boldly predicted that these funds would be spent within 5 years.

So what happened? Well, the tale of the scheme is one that provides a cautionary tale as to why our national productivity still lags behind competitors. It is also an illustration of the challenges that beset many valuable infrastructure projects.

There can be little doubt that the A38 project is a winner. My back-of-fag-packet calculations suggest that it would save nearly £6 million a year in journey time savings alone. Add to that 30 fewer casualties each year from accidents avoided.

So why are we still waiting? Well, despite the fact that its own analysis tells us that it would pay back £2.60 for every £1 spent, the project was put on hold by the Government in 2008 as the economy hit the skids. Short term savings; long-term pain. Millions of pounds of design development essentially torched on the back-burner.

It was then dusted off in 2014. It then took until 2019 to get ready for submission for a Development Consent Order. In January 2021 the project was cleared by the Secretary of State, only for this to be quashed in July that year with a potential Judicial Review looming.

Now finally there is light at the end of the tunnel. Barring further delays, work can get underway on a project that started life with a study in 2001. To give you an idea of how long ago that was, the scheme is roughly the same age as Erling Haaland but has, as yet, achieved significantly fewer goals. Had the project gone ahead when first planned, it would have released savings of c£60 million, paying off its original £30 million budget twice over, and helping boost the economy of the East Midlands. Sadly these benefits remain on the horizon. With construction inflation running ahead of rises in the wider economy, the cost has now also risen to an estimated £250 million – yet it still offers huge benefits if we can finally get on and deliver it.

If this was a one off it might just make for an interesting story. Yet a look back at the 2006 article proves that this is a story that repeats itself time and again. From the A483 Pant to Llanymynech bypass (announced 1998) to the A303 Stonehenge (designers first appointed in 2000), projects that were in the hopper for delivery in 2006 are still waiting to finally get off the ground.

If we want to thrive as a nation, and rebuild the post-Covid economy, we must find ways to press the accelerator in the race for the benefits unlocked by infrastructure investment.