The escalating cost of this project has become just as attention-grabbing as the first-of-its-kind-in-the-UK design. Understanding the story here is really important.
After 10 months’ reconstruction, the Fendon Road roundabout is reopening on Friday morning. There will continue to be heated debate over whether this is the right design in the right location and ultimately only time will tell if it functions as promised – making a step-change in the safety of pedestrians and cyclists while not increasing traffic hold-ups.
But there’s another aspect to this project which has become just as attention-grabbing as the first-of-its-kind-in-the-UK design – and that’s the escalating cost. Understanding the story here is important both because of the specifics of this scheme but also because of:
- The knock-on effect on other specified cycle safety schemes being funded from the same pot; and
- The public’s ability to trust that they are being dealt with honestly and transparently.
So let’s start at the beginning.
The first number associated with this project that I can find was a stated budget of £1.425 million for both Fendon Road roundabout and cycleways along Queen Edith’s Way, approved by the County Council’s Economy and Environment Committee in November 2016.
What the scheme ‘cost’: Nov 2016 to March 2020
It’s not until 2018 that we first see a number specifically associated with the roundabout redesign (discussions about the cycleways had reached an impasse by this point). The County Council applied to the Department of Transport for a funding contribution towards the Dutch roundabout. The application states “Scheme total cost £800,000 of which a DfT contribution of £550,000 is sought.”
This number was then repeated in the press release announcing that the funding had been secured later that year, although this refines the wording slightly “the scheme’s total cost is estimated to be £800,000”. However, it was this £800,000 figure which remained in the public domain until…
Revised scheme ‘cost’: March 2020 to July 2020
…Spring 2020, when the delays to completion of the scheme were announced. Subsequent questioning revealed not only an overrun in time but also a massive escalation in cost – with a new figure quoted of £1.8 million. The previously quoted £800,000 cost is now redefined as an “early estimate” which “did not include the additional utility work now required”, further defined as underground cabling issues, including adding 700m of new ducting. Fair enough, you might think – even with preparatory surveys it’s hard to know what you’re going to find underground until you start excavating. And that didn’t happen until September 2019 when they closed the road.
Clarification of scheme ‘cost’: July 2020
But this is where it starts to get really interesting! The County Council commissioned a report into the overrun which was presented to the July 2020 meeting of its Highways and Transport Committee released. That report stated that the cost of the roundabout was already known to have increased to £1.5 million before excavations started last September.
The only logical interpretation of that is that the statement made in March 2020 to the effect that the £1 million increase was all down to unpredicted utility works is simply not correct. However, this same report repeats the line that “Soon after commencing construction, substantial additional utility work, including BT and UKPN cabling, elements of which were not previously identified by either company were discovered”.
None of this stacks up. According to their own report, £700,000 of additional costs were known to the County Council before the first shovel hit the ground. In September 2019 the cost of the roundabout was £1.5 million. Yet no-one – absolutely no-one – ever used that number in the public domain and no-one ever corrected references to a £0.8 million cost (not an estimate) until the ‘utilities overrun’ became public in March 2020. And the revised cost was never brought back to committee for approval.
Final scheme cost? August 2020
Finally, the July 2020 report goes on to report on the impact of the Covid 19 crisis on the execution of the scheme, bringing us to a “total forecast required budget for Fendon Road” of £2.359 million – that is to say almost triple what people understood to be the scheme cost a mere four months ago.
As these new figures have gradually come into the public domain, questions have been asked how the benefit cost ratio (or ‘BCR’, the measure of ‘value for money’) has changed. The answer has been hard to extract but finally a response was received, which is worth reproducing here in full:
“At the time the South Cambridgeshire Cycle Improvement initiative was being progressed, local members were keen to have the initial S106 funding spent on safer walking and cycling on Queen Edith’s Way, Cherry Hinton Road and the Robin Hood junction and therefore the approach was to derive the benefits based on the consultations that took place and the general support received from the local residents. As such, therefore, a BCR was not calculated and therefore I am unable to supply such details.”
For the avoidance of doubt, a benefit cost ratio was not calculated.
To return to the specific points I raised at the start of this blog:
- The Fendon Road roundabout redesign was one of four schemes included in a £4 million funding pot for South Cambridge, the other elements being the Queen Edith’s Way cycleways; new traffic signals at the Robin Hood junction; and improved cycleways and public realm on Cherry Hinton Road. The Robin Hood scheme is the next to be delivered, scheduled for late 2020 with a budget approaching £1 million. Thus the final cost of the Fendon roundabout plus the Robin Hood junction will account for almost all of the available pot. The Cherry Hinton Road scheme was then due to follow but has now had its budget cut to pay for the roundabout overrun: “Proposals are still in development for the Cherry Hinton Road and remainder of the Queen Edith’s Way schemes and consideration must now be given as to how these schemes proceed based on the £700,000 that would remain in the programme.” We will see what this means in terms of provision in due course.
- The lack of visibility around the expenditure on this project (who knew what when, and by what process increases were signed off) and the reluctance to share information proactively is extremely corrosive to public trust. Many people who have followed this saga over the last four years will never again take at face value assurances from officers or councillors that appropriate project costing and ongoing management is in place, or that there is no need for them to forensically interrogate the detail of both the language and the numbers associated with future schemes. As the saying goes “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
So many questions arise from this project about accountability, transparency and governance.
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