There was no 'deception' of government over true Ely bypass costs, says Cambridgeshire County Council
Project is £13m over £36m budget - but Cllr Ian Bates says Department for Transport was kept informed
Claims the government was “deceived” into putting up millions of pounds to help construct the over-budget Ely bypass have been strongly denied.
Last month, it was revealed a major project to build the mile-long link between Stuntney Causeway and Angel Drove would cost more and take longer to complete than had initially been anticipated. The project is expected to be £13million over its £36million budget.
Edward Leigh, a campaigner with transport group Smarter Cambridge Transport, has criticised the overspend on the Ely bypass – and suggested the Department for Transport (DfT), which contributed £22m towards the project, may have been effectively “deceived” into granting funding, which they may not have done had the higher costs been understood earlier.
Cambridgeshire County Council has rejected this, saying the DfT was kept up to date and the whole process was transparent. The DfT says it will “monitor and evaluate” the situation.
In a blog post, Mr Leigh wrote: “Councillors were impatient to see the project delivered, so opted for faster delivery over spending more time to establish more accurate project costs. But, extraordinarily, they failed to agree a contingency to cover the inevitable increase in costs.
“The internal audit review must answer how it was prudent for the council to pursue a contract strategy that seems to incentivise bidders to underbid, in the certain knowledge they will be able to claw back any overspend (even if not their usual profit margin); and then to proceed with no contingency allowance.”
He went on to say that a council committee had been told that had the true cost of the project been established sooner, the Department for Transport might have considered the project poor value, and not contributed £22million towards it.
“It seems that deceiving DfT is fair game,” said Mr Leigh.
Cllr Ian Bates, chairman of Cambridgeshire County Council’s economy and environment committee strongly rejected the idea the DfT had been “deceived”, and highlighted the importance of bypass to the local area.
“I take exception to ‘deception’,” he said.
“That is a strong word. The people in Ely have been asking for something like this for years and years.”
He said the bypass would ease congestion in Ely, and stop vehicles hitting a notorious bridge, causing delays and damage. He said the benefits to the project were very pronounced and that it was still a good value investment.
The overspend, he said, was due to having to sink piles deeper into the Fenland soil to avoid the massive sections of the overpass sinking.
The county council said the process was completely transparent, and the DfT was kept aware of the situation at every step of the way.
A Cambridgeshire County Council spokeswoman said: “The costs shared with DfT were genuine estimates at the time the business case was being finalised. It was only after the work on site started that it became clear the cost of the project would be greater than expected.
“We took the decision to procure the contract early to get the scheme off the ground and to deal quickly with the congestion problems that have plagued Ely for many years.
“The point the officer was making to committee was simply, the additional £13million has been needed to deal with the ground conditions being even worse than expected, the complex design of the bridge and dealing with electric cables, water and gas mains.
“In reality, the costs would have been much the same if we had waited, but we wanted to push ahead and get the road built as soon as possible.
“The minutes from the committee meeting, where the overspend was discussed, are available on our website.”
The DfT said it is up to the county council to cover the increase in costs, and it will continue to “monitor and evaluate” the situation.
A DfT spokesperson said: “It is for the council to provide any further funding to cover the increase in costs. As with all major local authority schemes, we will undertake a monitoring and evaluation review which will cover the points raised.”
Cllr Bates said any extra spending would be capital expenditure, and drawn from a separate budget from other revenue expenditures.
Thus, he said, there would be no reduction in services or cutbacks to pay for the additional work.