The Island’s Military road — a geotechnical challenge to Ringway.
BEHIND THE NEWS IT HAS been hailed the saviour of Island roads — the answer to crumbling carriageways.
This week, the IW Council and Vinci Ringway, one of the UK’s largest highway services companies, finally signed on the dotted line to cement the biggest engineering contract in Island history — the multi-million pound highways private finance initiative (PFI).
Over the years, hundreds of column inches have been written on the seemingly never-ending merry-go-round of claim and counter claim in the bitter battle between PFI’s most fierce critics and ardent advocates.
Now the man at the tiller, helping to steer the Island to the promised land of silky smooth roads, has called for the whole Island to get behind the project, which he says will bring unprecedented investment and a lasting legacy.
Ringway’s PFI director, David Gibby, told the County Press: "To be frank, the main impression I get is not one of public suspicion but of an overwhelming desire for us all to get on and make the roads better.
"Having subscribed to the CP over the last two years, and having listened to the various debates and different viewpoints, I know residents have long made it plain better roads are a clear priority for them.
"Later this year, we will be holding meetings across the Island to explain more about the project and to give residents a further chance to raise any issues they have with us. I am confident that through these meetings we will be able to reassure residents who may have concerns over the project."
And there have been — and still remain — fears about the project, not least its affordability over the next 25 years.
We are told the project will be paid for using a £260 million grant from government with the council’s commitment being around £7 million a year, essentially the same as it currently spends in the areas to be covered by the PFI.
For that, the Island will benefit from a comprehensive upgrade of its transport infrastructure, covering everything from roads, pavements and bridges, to cycleways, streetlights and even CCTV cameras.
Under the contract, Ringway is also incentivised to use local materials, supplies and labour.
Listen to PFI opponents, however, and they will say there is no such thing as a free lunch.
They want to see the roads improved but fear PFI is a one-way road to economic hardship, which could shackle the Island with unmanageable costs for years to come.
And who could forget the now infamous description from a director of Price
waterhouseCoopers, who said PFI funding was like 'trying to nail jelly to the wall’.
In response, Mr Gibby argues: "The key point is that it is made possible by a government grant — not a loan that has to be paid back — of £260 million. The grant was not randomly allocated to the Island.
"The council was one of just three local authorities to be awarded it. The government was aware of the need to upgrade the Island’s roads and was also impressed with the vision of how it would bring about that improvement.
"The government has continued to be impressed with the way the project has developed, and the outline business case submitted by the council was held up as an example of good practice.
"The scheme does require an annual contribution from the council but I understand that contribution will be less than what the council would pay to provide the services under the current arrangement.
"It is certainly not a 'catch’.
"It is unarguable the scale of investment needed to undertake such a comprehensive upgrade of the transport infrastructure could only be undertaken with the £260 million grant awarded by government through PFI.
"My understanding is that government officials have confirmed to the council that the PFI is the only funding option available to unlock such significant funds."
Mr Gibby started his career as a graduate civil engineer across The Solent with Hampshire County Council.
He has been with Ringway since 2001 and prior to that worked for a consultant, Babtie, which he joined on a transfer from the Royal County of Berkshire,
During his time with Babtie, he was involved with other PFI schemes for the Highways Agency on the M6, M40 and elsewhere.
He said: "This PFI will be different and, like the Island, is unique.
"There are many examples of successful PFIs but it tends to be those that are less successful that get the media attention.
"What we have done through what has been a long, complex and thorough process is to develop a contract that replicates the best features of the successful PFIs and addresses the problems experienced in those that have been less successful.
"As a result, what we have arrived at is a project that is specifically designed to meet the needs of the Island and provide excellent value to taxpayers."
However, he accepts there will be many challenges along the way. Minimising disruption to the Island and the travelling public is key and it is also vitally important that the statutory undertakers — gas, water, electricity and telecoms — work with us to plan and co-ordinate their works as well.
"In terms of engineering difficulties, the geotechnical sites like the Military Road and the Undercliff present challenges which are unique to the Island but we can design solutions for these sites.
"However, there are also geological issues which are unique to the IW and if there is a major geological event — such as I believe occurred near the caravan park at the Undercliff in March 2001 — then I am afraid there is nothing we can do to prevent that."