The cost of work to build a pair of bus lay-bys on the A1 has been described as a highly questionable use of taxpayers’ money after it was revealed that more than half-a-million pounds was spent on the scheme – and only 40 passengers use the two stops each week.
Motorists faced major disruption and lengthy tailbacks during the construction period, which started in February and didn’t end until the middle of this month.
Traffic controls limited part of the single-carriageway to one lane near the Tritlington/Ulgham turn-off, north of Morpeth.
Earlier this month, county councillor Glen Sanderson called for clarity and an explanation about the Highways England scheme, after receiving numerous complaints from frustrated motorists, who were also being forced to use alternative routes, such as the dangerous A697.
And now, the agency has revealed that the project – to build a lay-by on each side of the road close to Tritlington C of E Aided First School – cost £553,000, including construction, design and the diversion of services. This has been spread over financial years 2014/15 and 2015/16.
Highways England says surveys indicate that around 20 passengers use each of the bus stops – northbound and southbound – per week, while there have only been six ‘slight injuries’ over the last five years in an area covering 1km each side of the stops.
The organisation has defended the work, saying it will improve safety, provide better facilities for passengers and reduce delays to motorists by removing stationary buses from the A1.
However, Coun Sanderson and Berwick MP Anne-Marie Trevelyan aren’t impressed. Coun Sanderson said: “This is a highly questionable use of taxpayers’ money and it is money that would fill a lot of potholes in the county or help provide bus services to remote rural areas where we need better public transport. Additionally, the money could be used to improve visibility of the junctions on the A1.
“There seems little benefit for all the chaos caused, especially as so few bus passengers use the stops and there is no bus-related accident history. We all want to assist the use of public transport, but this looks very difficult to justify, however good the intentions.”
Mrs Trevelyan has written to Highways England about the scheme and added: “This seems to be a great deal of taxpayer money spent on temporary bus stops, as this stretch of road will be dualled in the next two or three years. However, safety is also paramount for all users of our highways.
“I am surprised that value for money does not seem to have been considered in this endeavour and I want justification on who approved such an expensive scheme.”
Highways England says it carried out the work as part of a treatment programme along the A1 Morpeth to Alnwick route, which it says was agreed with Northumberland County Council.
It says that the need for works at bus stops along this length of the A1 was originally highlighted by the county council and inquiries were raised by residents, parish councils, the bus operator and Northumbria Police.
An investigation into the problems commenced in May 2012 and a report was formally submitted in December 2013, with consultation involving parish councils, the county council and Arriva. Aside from Tritlington, other work that has taken place so far includes removing bus shelters at Hampeth and Hitchcroft in 2013/14.
Coun Ian Swithenbank, cabinet member for local services at Northumberland County Council, said: “As I said in my response to Coun Sanderson at the recent full council meeting – it is important to note that this is a Highways England scheme.
“We understand from Highways England that the work is as a result of a study in 2013 on passenger transport facilities on the A1. The review aimed to improve access for passengers, road safety and traffic flows, and followed concerns raised by local residents, the bus company, parish councils and the police.
“It would be for Highways England to confirm whether the expected outcomes of the works justify the expenditure, but in general we should welcome initiatives that improve public transport facilities, road safety or traffic flow.
“It is disappointing that the works carried out by Highways England have led to such disruption for road users. I think we would possibly all agree that this disruption, and the lack of resilience of this single-carriageway stretch of the A1, emphasises again the overwhelming need for the road to be dualled.”