Saturday, 13 November 2010

Medway Tunnel revisited

Road tolling. Happen in Medway?

It is not quite Brideshead Revisited but it does have a parody story-line with betrayal, scheming and Conservative revisionism embedded within.

The tale of the Medway Tunnel is a sordid affair. Like a Dickensian novel with old traditionalist protagonists, this is something which has the potential to damage and inflict terrible pain on future Council services and the car driver or commuter of Medway. It is a very real legacy of conservative back-room committee style politics that so permeated local government for decades.

At the time, the Medway Conservative Council said members voted to buy the freehold from the Rochester Bridge Trust to "safeguard the future of road transport" in the area. This despite the fact the Rochester Bridge Trust has millions of assets and was responsible in its own rule-book for managing the tunnel for its serviceable lifetime

The Conservative-controlled authority said the decision would give them greater freedom to manage it. The trust gave the council a £3.6m one-off payment towards the upkeep of the 12-year-old structure, on the A289 near Rochester. It also gave it responsibility for all liabilities.

The Tunnel was purchased by the Medway Conservative Council, rubber stamped by its administration, after the Rochester Bridge Trust wardens agreed to sell the Tunnel with a sizeable donation to the Council for its upkeep.

At the time the Medway Labour Group opposed the purchase of the tunnel and deployed the following reasons

i) That the Tunnel has a mixed safety record and that the cost of liabilities should be fully reviewed before going ahead with the purchase. In 2006, safety standards in the structure were rated "very poor" and it was placed 43rd out of 52 European tunnels in a survey by the AA
ii) That there is an inherent conflict of interest that Cllr Chambers was also the Conservative Leader of the Council and was also Senior Warden of the Bridge Trust from 2007 - 2009. He was therefore responsible for the Medway Tunnel and its standard before hand-over.
iii) That the contribution from the Rochester Bridge Trust negotiated by the Medway Conservative administration was disgraceful and was a gross abdication of responsibility to the Council tax payer.
iv) That £3.6m will not cover the liability or full cost of the Tunnel and was a miserly one off payment negotiated poorly and without transparency. Full details of conversations surrounding the Tunnel are not in the public domain.

Some may squirm at the prospect of full transparency but the fact is this is not a small sum of money and its potential legacy is devastating on the budgets of future Labour and Conservative administrations. If the government were not to take ownership, a future Council would be expected to raise cash itself to fund the structure, which at that point would require significant maintenance.

The Conservative administration has left Medway a potential terrible legacy. Negotiated behind closed-doors and without transparency, this poor deal will leave the Council in a very unfortunate situation. They will be forced to find an income stream to fund the tunnel. This will come out of local services and/or could be raised from measures such as a toll.

This would be a massive blow to thousands of commuters who rely on the Tunnel every day.

Conservative MPs are right to press for government ownership of the Tunnel and they are right to do so now. The worrying fact is that the government of course has no obligation to purchase the tunnel at all, and in times of cuts and austerity they will be aware of its liability on their own budgets.

In addition, government will be fully aware that Medway Conservatives negotiated themselves a miserly buffer of 5-10 years, so they are very much within their rights to say it was a Medway Council deal; 'Your mess, clear it.'

It is however a great pity that at the time of the purchase all three Conservative PPCs sat on their proverbial hands, said and did absolutely nothing. They abdicated responsibility.

Medway Labour will continue to raise this issue because of the future concerns on budgets. Once in office we will be utterly transparent around the costs of the tunnel that were negotiated by Rodney Chambers and the Medway Conservatives. This legacy is there's and we will remind people of this fact.

Medway Labour will also work to move the Tunnel onto the government books as has been stated on record and will work with any that seek this objective.

The purchase of the tunnel stinks. It stinks of back-room deals, it stinks of poorly negotiated contributions, it stinks of liabilities being deliberately moved onto the Council tax-payer books. It stinks that not one Conservative at the time opposed the deal in public.

If it does move into the government books then future Councillors can relax.

If it does not, it could form an issue which will set the local political agenda for the next twenty years.

Mark Reckless MP can see this, and he can see this now. Pity he did not say this in 2008.

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