Road maintenance as levelling up

Essential highway maintenance – in this case the Tyne Bridge and Newcastle Central Motorway– now counts as a levelling up measure, following a government announcement today.

The Department for Transport (DfT) is granting a long-awaited £35.3m for the work, which will include improvements to traffic management and cycle route facilities on the bridge and motorway.

The DfT claims that ‘the repairs will generate £130.5 million in economic benefits by improving local connectivity, tackling congestion and poor air quality as they will avoid the rerouting of HGVs through residential areas’.

The leader of Newcastle City Council, Councillor Nick Kemp, told The Journal: ‘This is fantastic news for the city and the North East. Our much-loved bridge, which is a symbol of home for Geordies all over the world, will soon be shining proudly in the Newcastle skyline once again’.

Councillor Martin Gannon, leader of Gateshead Council and chair of the North East Joint Transport Committee, told the paper: ‘We are very glad to have finally got this funding agreed. Newcastle and Gateshead have worked closely together to campaign for national funding…’

The Tyne Bridge and Central Motorway form one of four scheme announced for funding today by the DfT. The others are £78.5m for a new road in Cornwall, £33.6 million to enhance walking and cycling accessibility and tackle congestion across the A34 between Greater Manchester and Stockport, and £13.4 million for essential maintenance to the A35 Redbridge Causeway between New Forest, Southampton and its port.

The DfT said the total £160m was being invested to level up infrastructure and support communities. It will generate £659.3m in economic benefits, create thousands of jobs and support the development of thousands of new homes, claims the Department.

Roads Minister Baroness Vere said:

‘We are committed to delivering world-class infrastructure across all parts of the country which supports local economies to thrive.

‘This £160.8 million investment will level up those opportunities from the North East to the South West, while giving motorists, cyclists and pedestrians the modern, safe and uncongested roads they deserve.

‘These schemes also present yet another important stepping stone towards cutting emissions and building a clean, efficient road network that is truly accessible to all.’

COMMENT

Today’s announcement is obviously welcome. But to characterise essential highways maintenance as ‘levelling up’ is disingenuous. If road maintenance can be called levelling up then so can just about any routine public spending – and probably will be. Potholes next?

This website argued a year ago that in the government’s eyes there are two reasons for repairing the Tyne Bridge – to keep the traffic flowing and to lift the spirits of local people by restoring an iconic structure: what we now know as ‘pride in place’.

The government has clearly decided that if it must spend money on routine essentials it might as well get added credit for levelling up at the same time, backed by probably spurious claims of generating £659.3 of economic benefits. But routine maintenance is not what most people expect of levelling up. As this website said on June 25 last year of the Tyne Bridge project:

‘It goes to the heart of what levelling up means. Will the North East be levelled up when its metrics such as unemployment and life expectancy are raised to the national average? Or will lifting our spirits do the job?’

The comment above by Councillor Gannon that Newcastle and Gateshead had campaigned together for national funding for the bridge is revealing. Why should they have had to? Why should Whitehall decide whether a bridge on Tyneside gets the money it needs for repairs? Or why funds for doubtless equally important but local projects should go to Cornwall, Manchester/Stockport and New Forest/Southampton for that matter? There can be no better case for devolution so that the North East (and other areas, if they wish) can take control of their own transport budgets and make these sort of decisions for themselves.

That is what the government, to be fair, is now offering under the Levelling Up White Paper. Here in the North East we keep being assured that a new regional devolution deal is just round the corner, but councillors have been dithering for years while the public look on from the outside, informed of what is going on only by the occasional revelation from North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll. It is time for the six council leaders in Northumberland and Tyne & Wear to open up.