The government company responsible for operating, maintaining and improving England’s motorways and major A-roads must be made more accountable after its decisions were branded “madness” and “bunkum”, a committee has heard.
Highways England came under fire at a meeting of North Yorkshire County Council’s transport and environment scrutiny committee days after it emerged a scheme to improve the A64 had been made less of a priority - and as frustration mounted over major works on the A1(M) south of Bedale.
The meeting was told a letter signed by the council and members of the A64 Growth Partnership was due to be sent to the Prime Minister following Highway England’s assessment of the need and value for money of the improvements dropping from medium to low.
Councillors said they had been astonished to learn they had weighted tourist traffic as less important than commuter traffic, despite it being key to the area’s economy.
Former Scarborough Borough Council leader Councillor Derek Bastiman described the decision as “pure bunkum”.
He said: “Tourism traffic to Scarborough Borough Council is worth in excess of £650m. It’s worth a similar amount to East Riding and a bit less to Ryedale. That’s £1.6bn and if that was manufacturing or engineering the government would be all over it like a rash.”
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He said he accepted the A64 would never be a dual carriageway all the way from York to Scarborough, but it was high time Highways England accepted where studies had proved “quick wins” were available.
Hovingham councillor Caroline Goodrick said the recently announced upgrade of the York outer ring road would create further pressure on “an already over-pressured situation at Hopgrove roundabout” on the A64.
She said: “It is madness to drive more traffic into an area that can’t cope with the traffic it has already got. I’m really cross about this.
“The A64 drives all the traffic locally off itself into villages. They will rat-run wherever they can get away from the A64. It’s not just local and tourist traffic, its freight and commercial pressure as well. They are going through the small villages churning up the side of the roads, which Highways England is not responsible for but North Yorkshire County Council is.
“I don’t think there’s enough overview of Highways England by the public, by the authorities. They seem to be a very much siloed organisation, whose only accountability is to the minister and it’s not good enough.”
Highways England manager Chris Dunn said he appreciated the frustration surrounding the A64.
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He said a further feasibility study was underway, that would include the York Outer Ring road, which was due at the end of November.
Mr Dunn said Highways England wanted to be transparent and would share information as to why the scheme had been downgraded. He added it has improved its communications with residents, holding events to explain works.
After the meeting, the council’s leader Councillor Carl Les said he believed the Secretary of State for Transport should put Highways England’s value for money criteria to one side and make the A64 a special case.
Councillors also expressed dismay after hearing Highways England had launched five months of major works on A1(M) between Ripon to Bedale just seven years after spending £330m of public money transforming it into a motorway.
Highways England officer Chris Dunn said councillors had raised “a valid point” and suggested the original road surfacing treatment had been selected to cut noise on the motorway through the rural area, but it was not as robust as materials that had been traditionally used on roads.
He said: “We are looking at the lifespan of roads, constantly reviewing what we have done and taking that into account.”
Councillor Richard Welch replied: “You are talking about quieter surfacing, but there’s no houses there. So noise is not an excuse.”