We can expect to see some debate in the next few weeks about the cost of the Fendon Road roundabout redesign suddenly escalating from £0.8m to £1.8m – particularly who knew and approved this, whether it represents value for money, and where the extra £1m is going to come from.
The first thing to note is that there is no published cost/benefit analysis which can be revisited easily. The County Council is trying to reframe the £800k cost, now describing it as an ‘early estimate’. But that is not consistent with its own application to the Cycle City Safety Ambition Fund, which provided £550k of central government funding for the scheme. We’ve been told that the additional funding required will have to be taken from other expected local S106 funded schemes but have no details as to which will suffer.
Set alongside budgets for many road projects, even a cost of £1.8m may be small beer. But none of this builds public confidence in local government’s ability to design and deliver schemes on time and to budget. Local residents also have recent experience of the significant overruns on the Hills Road cycleways. The explanation for both schemes has been that contractors didn’t know the extent to which they’d need to relocate utilities until they started excavating.
If that’s the case, why was the estimate so low, when this is one of the most costly and uncertain parts of any highway project? And how are those costs scrutinised when there is no incentive for utilities to keep costs down? In other countries, the local authority is not obliged to reimburse utility companies: it is the latter’s responsibility to re-locate services if a scheme requires it. Here, we’re left with the suspicion that utility companies are using public money to part-fund routine maintenance and renewal.
I will continue to follow the debate about the Fendon Road roundabout cost overrun with interest. Specifically, I will be looking for evidence that our institutions are actually interested in learning from their mistakes so that next time the right questions are asked from the outset about project costing, design and management.
This article was first published in the Cambridge Independent on 4 March 2020.