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South East Local Enterprise Partnership's £442m growth fund may not solve all Kent's transport problems as some spending not 'bolted down'

30 July 2014
by Paul Francis

A multi-million pound handout for transport projects and new jobs may not make all Kent’s growth dreams come true.

Anyone who drives around Maidstone regularly will know how the town centre gets choked during rush hour.

Despite efforts to ease congestion, the County Town has over the years garnered an unenviable reputation as one of Kent’s traffic blackspots.

Traffic in Maidstone

Traffic in Maidstone

But could that be about to change? This month, the South East Local Enterprise Partnership (SELEP) was awarded £442m to invest in a string of long-awaited transport projects and schemes to support business.

The handout makes it clear where it wants the money to be invested. It includes the much maligned gyratory system in Maidstone, which is to benefit from £4.7m of government cash.

There is, it seems, some reason to be optimistic. Council and business chiefs believe the funding is the first real opportunity in years to tackle a road system only just coping.

The grant will help pay for two additional northbound lanes along the A229, enabling northbound traffic heading towards Chatham to bypass the existing system.

Rush hour traffic in Maidstone

Rush hour traffic in Maidstone

The government’s generosity has not stopped there. A further £8.9m will pay for a series of other improvements to junctions and public transport.

With £442m to spend, it is not only Maidstone that stands to benefit. A string of other projects across Kent are in line for a multi-million pound handouts.

A new motorway junction at Ashford will go ahead after close to a decade of being in limbo, with £19.7m in the pipeline.

In Canterbury, the Sturry Link Road will be built with £5.9m while a £10m allocation for a Thanet Parkway station is a rare bit of positive news for an area still amid the gloom surrounding the closure of Manston airport.

Growth Fund awards for the South East Local Enterprise Partnership

Growth Fund awards for the South East Local Enterprise Partnership

But the government’s generosity only goes so far.

While it is contributing £133m to schemes in Kent, that covers only part of the bill. A further £96.5m will have to be found in match-funding from council coffers at a time when town halls are enduring an unprecedented period of belt-tightening, due largely – and ironically – to the government slashing funding to town halls, lopping 25% off their budgets.

Kent County Council insists it has the money to invest but acknowledges for some schemes, the contributions it makes are not “bolted down.”

"For those later in the programme and hence at an earlier stage of development, costs are not so bolted down..." - KCC statement

In a statement, it said: “In terms of total scheme costs, as you would imagine for many of the early years schemes, we are confident in costs.

"For those later in the programme and hence at an earlier stage of development, costs are not so bolted down.

“However, this scenario is true of any scheme until you actually get on site and start delivering.”

The recession has meant many councils have faced developers demanding to renegotiate Section 106 agreements in the downturn to pay for the associated infrastructure costs, such as roads.

The government acknowledged this issue in 2012, when it announced it would help councils by providing outside brokers to resolve issues around stalled developments. Ashford was among them.

Stalled plans to build 6,250 homes at Ebbsfleet Eastern Quarry saw the owner Land Securities successfully argue to reduce its initial £40m commitment under a Section 106 agreement to pay for new roads to £25m.

Councils will presumably have to pick up the pieces when it comes to issues like ensuring there are enough school places.

However, councils where development is taking off are benefiting from the government’s “new homes” money, rewarding them for every new house built.

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