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Junction upgrade should not be local tax burden

Highways England was established in 2015 with a simple mission statement, “Our role is to plan, improve, manage, operate and maintain England’s strategic road network, over 43,000 miles of motorways and major a roads connecting the country and driving economic growth”

Highways England have been given a budget in excess of £11 billion for this work, up to the end of 2020. So far so good.

I’m mostly retired but this week’s announcement on council tax, overall more than 4% when inflation is much lower, is a surprise to me, and will be another serious financial blow to those on modest incomes with families.

In the same announcement, it is revealed that Swindon Council tax payers will toss in £5 million that had been borrowed, to fund now abandoned plans, for a rebuilt Museum and Art Gallery. This will be £5million for improving the M4 junction 15, which is without any question or doubt, the responsibility of Highways England.

Why not pop north, up the same A417 road, 25 miles to the Air Balloon junction. Here a 3.4 mile road improvement is costing Highways England £435 million.

They have stated in the justification, that “this is the worst pinch point on a national road network, especially as the A417 runs between Gloucester, Cirencester and Swindon, and is used by many motorists travelling between London and the West Midlands as a shortcut between the M4 and the M5”.

Yes … well we in Swindon are fully aware of that. Are Gloucestershire Council Tax payers tossing in a few million to sweeten this particular pill? … err, sorry No.

The Borough Council is already borrowing £29 million, in addition to substantial Government grant, to upgrade the White Hart roundabout and here, further council tax payers debt for the Eastern Villages development, will spiral to an eye watering, £60 million, by 2025. This is approaching half of the entire annual total spend (£142 million) of our Council!

Even the Council’s own report stated that although monies can be clawed back from developers “there is a significant risk and impact on the Council’s finances, if these clawbacks are not received in full or paid later than expected”.

Council’s record in this regard is not good and I can remind readers that here in North Swindon, developer contributions were reduced from an agreed £23 million at the planning stage to barely £14 million in reality, although in fairness to the Borough, this was mainly Wiltshire County Council’s useless performance complicated by the reorganisation of local government.

Can I say this is not just unbridled criticism of Swindon Borough Council. They have a difficult job to do; sandwiched between statutory responsibilities, constantly changing Government diktats pushing more responsibility in their direction with reduced funding, powerful developers and the local populace with a legitimate shopping list, overlaid by a wish for a low council tax. They in fact do a half decent job in many areas.

Arguably however, 16 years of uninterrupted ‘local power’, has produced a somewhat blasé mentality when doling out millions on road improvement schemes, which, ironically, invariably end up as a catalyst for yet more local criticism and derision.

I just hope my friend from Cirencester spares a small nod of gratitude, perhaps even a little wave of appreciation, to Swindon Council taxpayers, as he powers down to the M4, trimming five minutes off his daily commute to Hungerford!

John Stooke, Haydon End, Swindon

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