There is a growing financial crisis at the heart of Government that is only just beginning to become apparent in individual departmental budgets. The Guardian has an article today that highlights industry fears that as much as £30bn could be cut from the Department for Transport’s capital spending over the next 10 years. This could have a major impact on us here in Reading.
The Government announced last year a massive project worth about £500m to rebuild Reading station and to relieve the bottleneck on the network that is caused by the station’s current lack of capacity. There is a £25m major capacity upgrade of junction 11 of the M4 underway. The Council is also working with neighbouring authorities to develop a £300m+ bid to the Department of Transport’s “Transport Innovation Fund” (TIF), which would fund a third Thames crossing, reduced bus fares, an improved cycle network and a Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) scheme for the Reading urban area. There is also the £16bn Crossrail scheme which whilst currently planned to terminate at Maidenhead could conceivably be extended to Reading once the Reading Station upgrade and electrification is completed.
That is a serious amount of infrastructure investment programmed and planned for Reading and its environs. So what is under threat? Clearly Crossrail with its huge price tag must be at risk, as the article highlights. There are aspects of its route that could be subject to legal challenge and the final scheme may not be built for many years, even if the funding is available. It is an easy cut to make. The TIF pot also seems a likely candidate for savings. Manchester was in line for £1bn until its residents rejected the scheme which included a heavy handed congestion charge plan. Whilst the DfT seems supportive of Reading’s proposed bid, the Treasury may have other ideas and money that is not already committed may be ripe for being clawed back to fill the yawning deficit.
Junction 11 of the M4 should be safe, as the amount is relatively small and the work is already well underway but it is not inconceivable that the Reading Station project could be under some threat. The enabling works have started but the bulk of the money has not been spent and Network Rail could be asked to postpone or cancel the project and refund the money that has been allocated. I very much hope that this does not happen but the massive black hole at the heart of government may force some very difficult choices sooner rather than later.
In the mean time we can look forward to more congested roads and trains and increased fares and charges.