Work on a £1bn package of transport development across the Tees Valley will press ahead after the plans were given the nod by the TVCA’s Cabinet.
Using funding secured after the scrapping of the northern leg of HS2, the radical programme consists of 26 projects affecting road and rail systems across the area. A £20m tram development with 15 circular ‘hop on, hop off’ town centre services is among the headline plans, along with the potential devolution of rail services and infrastructure for driverless cars.
At the meeting of the Tees Valley Combined Authority on Friday questions were raised about a perceived lack of consultation with local authorities. Leader of Darlington Borough Council, Cllr Stephen Harker questioned whether local authorities had been given enough opportunities to discuss what was being proposed and how the plans affected each area.
As reported, the package includes £250m to create a new Darlington relief road, connecting the A66 with the A1M. Mr Houchen said: “To look at this as a report in isolation is incorrect. This is a follow on from our strategic transport plan that we’ve had in place for a number of years now that has been extensively consulted on, working very closely with local authorities.
“I think, when you take in the full process, this is a number of years in the making and what we now actually have is the money to deliver on the strategic transport plan. I’m confident that if we were to have sat, like others might do, and spent another year of more meetings, more paperwork and discussion I’m fairly certain we would have ended up with just the same list of projects.”
Mr Houchen also addressed concerns that local authorities could be expected to contribute towards some of the projects with match funding, for example. “As part of this, there is no expectation, certainly for as long as I’m here, that there will never be an ask or a draw from the council for financial support for any one of these projects,” he said.
Rail plans include putting together a business case for electrification of the rail network from Northallerton to Saltburn, numerous station upgrades and introducing rail services between Darlington and Hartlepool. Meanwhile, a sum of £1m is being afforded to an East Cleveland rail feasibility study for the Saltburn to Boulby line to be opened to passengers.
Cllr Alec Brown, leader of Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council, said the case had been discussed for years and questioned whether the study was not duplicating work carried out already. He said people are already feeling “more and more isolated” in East Cleveland.
With the potential loss of the 1 and 2 and Teesflex bus services, “it’s the perfect storm”, he said. “We are looking for reassurances for people in East Cleveland as it seems years away and that really concerns me.”
Mr Houchen said at the moment there was “no certainty” on the costings of the project and its economic benefits as well as its impact on operations at Boulby Mine. He added: “We want to get on and do that as soon as possible – nobody can physically do the project until this work is done.”
Tom Bryant, head of transport at the combined authority, said “desktop” work was carried out in 2020 but the proposed feasibility study would take on “a completely different level of detail” in terms of costings and whether the project can be delivered. He estimated the feasibility study would be complete within 12 months.
Further development work on a new Tees flyover will begin at a cost of £15m. Cllr Bob Cook, leader of Stockton Council, asked why there was no mention of a Portrack relief road in the plans, to reduce traffic flow on the Portrack Interchange. He was told it would be included as part of development work into the crossing.
Following the controversial cancellation of the northern leg of HS2, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak promised an additional £8.55bn of funding to be provided through city region sustainable transport settlements (CRSTS). The Tees Valley was allocated a total of £978m of funding for the second round of CRSTS funding for years 2027/28 to 2031/32.
A Department for Transport spokeswoman said discussions would take place “in due course” with city regions and HM Treasury on whether “a small proportion of CRSTS 2 allocation may be brought forward into the final two years of CRSTS 1 for years 2025/26 and 2026/7. Mr Houchen said the transport plan would transform the region into “an economic powerhouse”, bringing improved access to jobs and a “positive difference to everyone’s day-to-day travel”.
The package has also been endorsed by the Tees Valley Business Board. Siobhan McArdle, chair of the board, said: “Transforming the Tees Valley transport network is crucial to the delivery of inclusive economic growth, and ensuring people have the best possible access to both the employment opportunities created and the education and skills programmes available to support them. This programme offers an ambitious range of schemes which will improve access and connectivity across our region and as the Business Board we look forward to working with the TVCAs transport team as they scope, cost and prioritise these exciting programmes of work.”