Haven’t we heard today’s big news before?
It’s the Autumn Statement on Wednesday.
That means today and tomorrow we’ll be hearing of a string of pre-Autumn Statement teasers – things the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne will formally announce come December 3, but is giving us a preview of now, just to whet our appetites.
Us journalists do like to know what’s going to happen before it happens, you see, and the government plays on this more and more each year to build up to an almighty climax of fiscal frenzy when the chancellor finally makes his statement in full.
Today’s big news from Downing Street is that the government plans to spend £15bn on 100 road projects over this parliament and next, and 84 projects are “brand new today”, a government statement says.
But is the investment actually new news?
First off, let’s hear about the plans.
The £15bn “roads revolution”
So what exactly are the plans?
England will get 1,300 miles of roads, lanes and motorways.
Key projects include:
- Improvements to a third of M25 junctions
- £100m to improve cycling provision in 200 places
- £350m improvements to the A27 in Sussex to ease traffic
- A tunnel to bypass Stonehenge to ease the bottleneck on the A303
- Improvements to the A1 in the north east: a £290m dual carriageway
- £300m to tackle noise pollution and carbon emissions
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said: “Today I am setting out the biggest, boldest and most far-reaching roads programme for decades. It will dramatically improve our road network and unlock Britain’s economic potential.”
Osborne said the plans will “transform some of the country’s most important strategic routes”.
Hang on a minute – hasn’t this been announced before?
Prime Minister David Cameron announced the £15bn investment in roads at the CBI Conference in early November. It just wasn’t that widely covered by the press.
Here’s what Cameron told the conference on 10 November:
“Between now and 2020 we have plans for £15 billion of road spending; that could lead to an extra 100 schemes being undertaken on our roads and we’re looking specifically at those pinch points, those problem areas, that businesses and people have talked to us about and told us are so essential – looking at areas like the A303; absolutely vital for the west of our country; looking at the A1 north of Newcastle, a really key road for that part of our country; looking at the A47 in the East of England, a high growth region that needs better transport links; looking at roads across the Pennines and a number of other schemes. So a big investment, only possible because we manage the nation’s finances effectively.”
And despite the flashy headlines today, the £15bn to be spent on road projects was actually first announced in 2013, according to numerous reports, including the BBC. (We’re digging into the relevant documents this morning, and will update this story with those details later.)
Labour is saying the investment in roads has been announced by the government multiple times.
“The government has ‘announced’ plans for road investment at least three times since 2013 and no additional money has been announced,” said Labour shadow transport secretary Michael Dugher.
“Ministers will be judged not on what they promise to deliver in the next Parliament, but on what they have actually delivered in this one – and the truth is barely a shovel has been used in anger on our nation’s highways over the last four-and-a-half years.”
The numbers are a bit tricksy.
In the government’s own press release today about the plans, the 84 new schemes total £9.4bn, which breaks down like this:
- north east and Yorkshire – 18 schemes worth around £2.3bn and estimated to create 1,500 construction jobs
- north west – 9 schemes worth £800m and estimated to create 600 jobs
- Midlands – 17 schemes worth £1.4bn and estimated to create 900 jobs
- east of England – 15 schemes worth £1.5bn and estimated to create 1,000 jobs
- London and south east – 18 schemes worth £1.4bn and estimated to create 900 jobs
- south west – 7 schemes worth £2bn and estimated to create 1,300 jobs
But Dugher’s point is that the total amount (the full £15bn) had already been committed to in 2013 – it’s just the details we’re getting now.
This is a favourite trick of governments ahead of Autumn Statements and Budgets – to capitalise on plans that weren’t too widely covered by the press first time around and make them seem like a major new announcement.
The government gets all the benefit of flashy new plans, without having to commit any additional budget.
Criticism: do the plans favour Tory and Lib Dem areas?
The plans have come under further fire because some critics say that two-thirds of the projects will benefit areas where Conservatives and Liberal Democrats hold seats.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg denied the claims.
He told Sky News: “You don’t make decisions like this based on a political map, you make these decisions based on the economic map and the geographic layout of our county to make sure that all parts of our country are properly linked.
“Many of these projects have been spoken about for years.”
Well, that last bit is true, at least.
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