Auditors warned over relief road 'iceberg'

15/04/2024
Chris Ames

A councillor has asked Shropshire Council’s external auditor to investigate concerns the North West Relief Road (NWRR) in Shrewsbury will 'completely bankrupt the council'.

Liberal Democrat councillor David Vasmer, who sits on the committee that gave planning permission for the road, has written to Grant Thornton UK LLP to raise concerns about an alleged series of failures by the council to follow its own proper procedures.

As Highways has reported, the council is relying on a pledge by transport secretary Mark Harper in a TV interview to ‘fully fund’ the road. However, his department has made clear that it has so far only said it will fund the £81m cost at outline business case stage, while critics have suggested that it could now cost around £200m.

Cllr Vasmer highlighted four areas of concern:

  • the council’s alleged failure to follow its own procedure on the need for a Full Business Case to be in place before approving capital expenditure
  • starting construction before full funding is guaranteed
  • committing £45m of taxpayer cash to the project ahead of the general election, which Cllr Vasmer said could be wasted if a new government refuses to fund the project
  • circulating tender documents before all the planning conditions have been agreed, which ‘risks a serious underestimation of the project’s true costs'.
  • He said: ‘I was compelled to write this letter because I am seriously concerned that this road project could completely bankrupt the council.

He said: ‘Despite the administration’s reassurances, the Department for Transport has not guaranteed to fully fund the road beyond the Outline Business Case estimate of £81m. This leaves Shropshire Council committed to paying the remainder of the road’s costs, which could be another £120m or more. That would bankrupt the council immediately with devastating implications for residents across the whole county, as vital services would be lost overnight.’

Better Shrewsbury Transport (BeST), which is crowdfunding a legal challenge to the road, said the absence of up to date costings for the project in the public domain is adding to the financial pressure is.

It said that with scores of pre-commencement planning conditions in place, including those surrounding the risk the road poses to Shrewsbury’s water supply, there is a risk that costs could escalate exponentially, with the council committed to paying for any overruns.

Mike Streetly from BeST said: ‘If Shropshire Council was the Titanic, the NWRR would be its iceberg. BeST has been raising the alarm about this road’s spiralling costs for years now, but the Conservative administration has had its fingers in its ears. Far from trying to avoid the iceberg, they’re speeding up as they sail straight towards it.’

Dan Morris, the council’s cabinet member for highways, said: 'Since 2019, work has been taking place to support the development of a full business case, which will be considered by Full Council in the summer, before being shared with the DfT later this year.

'Money to enable this work to happen has come from the DfT and the former Marches LEP, with match funding from developer contributions and the sale of assets as part of the SUE West development. The project spend to date remains within the available budget and has been fully agreed within the council’s current Capital Financial Strategy.

'Work to complete the required Section 106 agreements is now taking place, which will allow for a full planning permission notice to be issued shortly

'To ensure that there are no delays, the procurement of the main contractor is now underway. However, no contract will be awarded until the full business case is endorsed and approved by Full Council and the DfT.'

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