OPINION: We must seize the opportunities of an improved Link Road
- Credit: Archant
Those of us who are seasoned travellers now approach the journey from Tiverton to Barnstaple will a degree of trepidation in anticipation that the trip will take longer than we want. That section of roadworks and the seemingly never-ending speed limit is a familiar echo of many journeys we have all suffered.
Let us, however, remember one of the worse catch phrases ‘there is no gain without pain’.
Our link road has been a vital lifeline since it was built, but some may recall that the original dual carriageway solution was dumbed down to the current mish-mash of two and three lane sections at the stroke of a pen by cost-cutting officials in the Treasury all those years ago.
Up to then its appalling road network put Nothern Devon into the same category as a certain area in South Devon beautifully captured by the legendary broadcaster Terry Wogan - “If you want to visit Torquay take a packed lunch”.
Since it was built the North Devon Link Road has been critical for economic and social well-being across the region. Too often it has been dubbed the villain because of some tragic road accidents, spectacular breaches of the speed limit and endless congestion.
What a way to welcome our tourist visitors many of whom have bad memories for both getting in and out. What a way to encourage business investment particularly into our manufacturing companies, many of whom rely on just-in-time deliveries and who can suffer penalties if finished goods do not reach their destination in time.
The case for a further road upgrade was obvious and, in the event, thanks to some brilliant work by our local authorities and Parliamentary representatives, proved to be a relatively painless exercise when tackling the minefields which surround the Department of Transport and the even trickier bunker mentality of Treasury officials.
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Suddenly there was, the then, Treasury Secretary Grant Shapps smiling out at us with a cheque for £60m.
The works are focused on that 5-mile section between South Molton and Barnstaple which will have a wider carriageway, greater overtaking opportunities, improved capacity, upgrades to eight key junctions, improved safety and resilience and new facilities for pedestrians and cyclists along the route.
The business plan which justified the project was based upon simple and obvious objectives - boost the local economy, support plans for 6,700 new homes, make it easier to create job opportunities and make it easier for businesses, consumers and employees to get around. In theory the Government statistics suggest that for every £1 spent on infrastructure this returns £4 to the wider economy. This would translate into overall regional benefits.
Brilliant - but what are we doing to prepare for this?
The road is due to be completed by the end of 2023. So, give or take likely delays, by mid-summer 2024 it will be open for business. There have already been benefits as the main contractor Alun Griffiths was charged with opening up opportunities for local contractors, suppliers and employees.
It is not, however, good enough to seek to justify this huge (and probably increasingly unique) investment based just on the fact that around 91% of our residents travel by road and around 70% of our freight transport is carried by commercial vehicles i.e. convenience. Many areas across the UK have battled for years to get new roads only to find that they were ill-prepared and that the only benefit was getting in and (too often) getting out more quickly - this can also lead to job displacement.
What is both exciting and challenging is how this asset can be converted into a real game changer for local businesses and residents. Get this right and there are chances to improve access to markets, boost business confidence, foster economic integration and stimulate competition. Promoting the benefits to potential regional/national/international investors is an obvious target. Improved business productivity should be achievable. Reinforcing brand and marketing campaigns proudly announcing that Northern Devon is ‘open for business’ should be part of a planned-for structured campaign.
This is not as simple as road building equalling the ‘road to recovery’. It is also not without its challenges particularly the need to support net zero targets and establish a green travel footprint - the trick of course is that this is not about cars, it is about emissions.
We cannot simply say that our Local Authorities and politicians should sort this out. To a large extent they have already done their job and should be congratulated. The ball is firmly with the business community to rise to a fabulous opportunity and prove that this single investment is the trigger for a step chance in the economic prospects for the sub-region.