Shropshire Star

Councillors vote to support £95 million of borrowing for Shrewsbury relief road included in report by mistake

Councillors have accidentally voted to support £95 million of extra borrowing towards Shrewsbury’s North West Relief Road after the figure was mistakenly included in a report.

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An artist's impression of what the North West Relief Road could look like

The vote took place at a meeting of the full council on Thursday and, despite not committing the authority to taking out the loan, has sparked a backlash from critics who have questioned why such a glaring error was not picked up.

It has also raised concerns over whether the true cost of the scheme has more than doubled from previous estimates of £87m to an eye-watering £182m.

The council has said, however, that the “holding” figure quoted in the report was not a true estimate. It has been asked to clarify where the amount came from.

At the meeting at Shirehall, councillors were asked to approve changes to this year’s capital strategy – a list of one-off projects and infrastructure schemes that are funded separately from day-to-day services, usually through sale of assets, grants and borrowing.

Included in the list of projects appended to the report, though not referenced in the report itself, was £95.3m of borrowing to plug a “funding gap” in the cost of the North West Relief Road (NWRR).

This was queried by councillors who said they had not been given any new information about why more money was needed on top of that which had been previously agreed.

Liberal Democrat group leader Councillor Roger Evans said: “It is time to stop, review the project and really look at this and how the council is doing it.”

Labour group leader Councillor Julia Buckley said: “We are being asked to find an extra £95m with no information.

“Basically they don’t know the details or the costs, but you are being asked today to find £95.3m.”

Councillor Buckley said repaying the loan at current interest rates would mean another £5m of service cutbacks every year to fund the repayments.

She said: “This means cutting our basic services to the bone so that we can find some money to pay off a debt for a road that nobody wants.”

Councillor Dan Morris, cabinet member for highways, said claims that nobody supports the road were “baloney” and accused opposition councillors of being “anti-democratic”.

He said the full business case would be prepared if and when planning approval is granted, with a decision expected next month.

But it was only after councillors voted through the changes to the capital strategy that the blunder was picked up.

In an email to Green group leader Councillor Julian Dean, director of finance James Walton admitted he was “confused” when the figure was mentioned in the debate as he was not aware it was on the list.

He said: “This row should have been deleted, it was missed, and I apologise.

“Early drafts of the spreadsheets apparently included holding figures for a number of items that were considered for inclusion in the report.

“This one should have been deleted and is clearly not referred to in the report as it was left in erroneously – hence the confusion.”

He added that the figure was “not an estimate of cost”.

Councillor Evans said he would ask for an emergency meeting to be called so the matter could be discussed again.

He said: “Up until now, when asked many times what the estimated cost was for the NWRR, officers have refused and said they are unable to do it until after the planning application is agreed.

“Here we have a figure submitted by officers as an updated figure for the NWRR.

“Why was this not given to members beforehand, and why has Shropshire Council continued to spend £24 million [to date] doing work when there is, at present, no way that the road can be afforded?

“£95m extra cost for Shropshire Council is not acceptable.”

Councillor Buckley said it was “shocking” that the report had been voted through with the £95m wrongly included.

She said: “The opposition parties all voted against such expenditure but the Conservatives voted blindly to spend this additional £95.3m without understanding it, questioning it, or having any information about it.

“It now transpires to be a typing error – imagine voting that level of expenditure without caring whether it is needed or not.”

Councillor Dean said it was concerning that questions raised ahead of the vote about the “typo” were “ignored”.

He added: “But just as importantly, where did this draft figure come from?

“Is this what officers really think will be needed in borrowing to build the road?

“That is a huge and completely unsustainable increase. It’s time to stop this financial madness and call off further work on the road.”

Lib Dem councillor and transport campaigner Rob Wilson said had been asking for an updated cost estimate since he was elected in 2021, to no avail.

He said: “Today at council the Conservatives proposed taking out a £95m loan to make up an unspecified funding gap.

“I asked why they would need £95m for an £87m road and was not given an answer.

“It appears that the NWRR is a blank cheque pet project whilst every other council budget faces cuts.”

Campaign group Better Shrewsbury Transport (BeST), which wrote to the council earlier this week to request a formal investigation into the project, said the latest debacle was further evidence for abandoning the scheme.

Group spokesperson Emma Bullard said: “BeST has been warning for several years that the NWRR can’t be achieved for its original £87m price tag.

“Today Conservative councillors voted through a £95m budget increase for the NWRR on top of the original £87m.

“It beggars belief that they did this on the basis of an erroneously published figure without any proper scrutiny.

“This fiasco only strengthens our call for the council’s monitoring officer to launch a ‘section five’ investigation into the maladministration of this project.”

James Walton, Shropshire Council’s Executive Director of Resources has moved to explain how the figure made its way into the report – saying it was an "officer mistake".

He said: "The paper before Council today was to approve the draft capital strategy ahead of wider member engagement in overview and scrutiny and was not to approve specific funding.

"For clarity, the approvals given by Full Council today did not provide any additional funding to the proposed Northwest Relief Road (NWRR) as the content of the report clearly outlined that Council should note the considerations in relation to the NWRR and not to approve any funding.

"As a result of an officer mistake, the Appendices B and C contained an error estimating increased costs and proposing additional funding for the NWRR. This figure should have been removed as it was a remnant of working documents whereby finance officers had incorporated an extremely rough estimate based on high levels of inflation, assumptions about contingencies and delays.

"This was in effect a ‘holding’ figure, often used by finance officers when modelling potential costs or budget projections and was not derived from consultation or information from the project team, or operational officers involved in the proposed NWRR.

"To correct this, we are required to amend the single figure and recirculate Appendices B and C to all members of the council to clarify the situation. We also commit to bringing full clarification to Full Council in December as necessary."