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False choices

by Prue Bray on 10 February, 2010

I was somewhat stunned this morning when I heard John Redwood on the Andrew Peach show on BBC Radio Berks.  He was on the show to talk about the lack of crash barriers on the A 329 (M).  For those of you who don’t know, the A 329 (M), which goes from Bracknell to Reading via J10 of the M4, is a strange bit of road, because, although it is a motorway, it is the responsibility not of the Highways Agency but the local authority – in this case, Wokingham Borough Council.  And for a significant length of it there is no crash barrier on the central reservation, just a wide stretch of grass.  Over the years there have been a number of accidents, some fatal, which have involved vehicles crossing the central reservation.  And the council has in the past been criticised by coroners for not putting a crash barrier in place.   Sadly, there was another fatal accident last Friday – which has given fresh impetus to calls for a crash barrier to be provided.

The council has asked the government to provide the money, and the government has declined to do it.  The council has found around £600,000 to pay for barriers along part of the road by the M4.  It is claiming it simply cannot afford the rest – which is several million pounds.

Now clearly, the lack of crash barriers is a problem and it needs to be sorted out.   There have already been too many deaths.  But it was John Redwood’s suggestion for raising the money that stunned me.    I don’t have his exact words, but what he said was that Wokingham had put together a school replacement scheme that was “extremely expensive” (that bit is an exact quote), which may well fall over for lack of full funding, and if it was cancelled the council could use some of that money to pay for the barriers.  When nudged by Andrew Peach as to whether he meant “the school in the south” (which I take to be the new school promised for Arborfield), he agreed he did.    If anyone heard the broadcast, and thinks that is not a fair summary, please get in touch – you can check this morning’s (10th Feb’s) broadcast out on the BBC iplayer at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p001d7m9/episodes/player, and the John Redwood bit is about 24 minutes in.

I have a few problems with John’s proposal.  The first is that the secondary schools are in a bad state, have been for years, and now at last when the council appears finally to be getting its act together to do something about it, he is complaining their plans are extremely expensive and apparently would prefer the money not to be spent.  The second problem is that you can’t just transfer the money for the new school in the south to crash barriers.  That money is due to come from developers, who, under the council’s newly adopted Core Strategy, are going to be building 3,500 houses at Arborfield and 2,500 houses around Shinfield and Spencers Wood.   Clearly, they are going to have to cough up money towards a school because a lot of children will be living in the new houses they are building.  I don’t think they are going to be willing to pay for a crash barrier instead of a school – and I don’t think the rules on developer contributions would even allow you to ask them to swap money for schools for money for a crash barrier anyway.

The third problem I have is that John is suggesting that the council choose between schools and crash barriers.  And that is a completely false and unnecessary choice.  The council has managed to find around £600,000 so far.  It can plan out how to raise more cash over time.  And there are other potential sources of funding too:  for example, the Local Transport Plan that is just being consulted on, which will include bids to government for money.  Or look at it in connection with other road schemes, perhaps as part of the Transport Innovation Fund plans.    And those are only two of the ways I have thought of since sitting down to write this.

So it isn’t a case of replacing schools v crash barriers – and don’t let yourselves be fooled into thinking it is.  We need both.  And I will do whatever I can to help make both happen.

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