Shropshire Council today noted that the budget for the North West Relief Road (NWRR) could require a “budget uplift for funding gap” for the four-mile road. The not inconsiderate sum of £95 million. The funding will come from a loan from the Public Works Loan Board or from “alternative funding options”.

I had already decided to vote against the capital expenditure plans as I object strongly to the NWRR. I also believe Shirehall should be refurbished rather than an unaffordable new civic created on the shopping centres site it bought at a cost £53 million. I thought the extra £95 million for the NWRR excessive.

Every Conservative in favour and most of the Lib Dems, Greens and Labour voted against. Then the punch line. The Tories had included the £95 million in the proposals by mistake.

At the same meeting the Tory leader Lezley Picton argued that she and the cabinet were in tight control of the council’s finances. Tight control? A £95 million mistake?

Capital estimates approved by Shropshire Conservatives

The Conservatives have always been shy of coming clean on the costs of the NWRR. Dan Morris, the portfolio holder for finance, told the meeting that the full business case will be made for the road after it gets planning permission, suggesting he hadn’t a clue about how much it will cost or be funded. He went on to claim that only 2% of people in Shropshire oppose the road (c. 2,500 people have objected to the road). I know nothing of Morris’s background but it certainly wasn’t in statistics. He is assuming that all those that don’t comment are in favour of the road. That’s like counting all those that don’t vote as supporters of the ruling party. The remark was numerically incompetent even though Dan Morris’s contribution was praised by the council leader.

After the meeting, the Responsible Officer for finance, James Walton, emailed councillors a statement:

“As a result of an officer mistake, the Appendices B and C contained an error estimating increased costs and proposing additional funding for the NWRR. This figure should have been removed as it was a remnant of working documents whereby finance officers had incorporated an extremely rough estimate based on high levels of inflation, assumptions about contingencies and delays.  This was in effect a ‘holding’ figure…”

The Responsible Officer put his name to the paper but he admitted that he had not seen “the error” until the council had voted. In responding to criticism of the budget for “the road” neither Lezley Picton nor Gwilym Butler would address member’s concerns over the £95 million. Did they realise that the figure was wrong? If that was the case they should have fessed up during the meeting. Or maybe they recognised the figure and were not prepared to defend the borrowing of nearly £100m to fund a road that almost no one in the county supports (to reverse Dan Morris’s cock eyed statistics).

Now Shropshire Council is running around saying the £95 million is not real. Too late. The expected real cost of the road has been revealed. The claim it was a mistake can be interpreted as it was seen as mistake to reveal the expectations for costs of the NWRR, not that it was a mistaken figure.

This public relations disaster for the Conservatives reminds me of the time the fire alarms went off at my secondary school. It was a false alarm. The deputy headmaster, a universally disliked figure, ran around the school shouting, “It’s a false alarm. Get back to class!” He was too late and so distrusted no one obeyed him.

Except. The thirty Conservative members present at the council meeting obviously believed in the need for borrowing £95 million or they would not have voted for the capital budget. Surely, they weren’t voting as they were told to do by their leader without making up their own minds based on the council paper?

The reputation of the council leader Lezley Picton is toast after today. Along with the portfolio holder for finance Gwilym Butler she approved the aspiration to borrow £95 million for the NWRR. The Executive Director of Resources may say it was a mistake by his officers — whatever happened to leaders taking responsibility for errors made on their watch? — but the fact that the £95 million even entered a spreadsheet reveals that costs for the NWRR are ballooning. Its true costs could be as high £182 million, nearly £100 million over the public budget of £82 million. The debacle yesterday brought Shropshire Council into disrepute. It also showed that whatever the benefits of the road, it is unaffordable.

More comments on this debacle in Keri Trigg’s article in the Shropshire Star.

[This article was corrected on Friday morning to correct a typo! and clarify some points.]

4 thought on “Shropshire Council “approves” £95 million for the North West Relief Road by “mistake””
  1. So the inference is that the rough estimates were unduly pessimistic. If the officers were erring on the side of pessimism and it turns out to cost less than the figure the Council has now budgeted for it will be a unique event.

  2. I am fascinated by the idea that “the full business case will be made for the road after it gets planning permission”. At its highest level the National Planning Policy Framework requires proposals to meet the three tests of economic, environmental and social sustainability. Without a business case how could this road pass the first of these three tests?

  3. What does it take to get rid of this Ecocidal bunch of incompetents that 42% of the people still vote for???.
    A Road to Extinction – paid for with cuts to Services for the whole of Shropshire for years to come.
    One can only ask what possible motives they have for this idiocy….

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