SHEFFIELD is on the verge of finalising a £2bn scheme for the repair and maintenance of its roads, footpaths, bridges and street lights.
A contractor is due to be selected in February with a view to work starting on the huge backlog next spring.
Revised details of the 25-year project – the biggest in the country – are set to be approved by councillors next Wednesday.
It has been slightly scaled back after the Government’s contribution was reduced by £40m, likely to result in the dimming of street lights in the early hours in areas where there are few pedestrians and extending the lifespan of some equipment, such as traffic lights.
But after six years of planning and preparation, a Private Finance Initiative is in its final stages.
A £1.21bn Government grant will pay for the infrastructure to be brought up to standard over the first five to seven years then the council will pay £800m for the standard to be maintained over the next 18 years. The authority will be locked into the contract with either Amey UK or a consortium led by Carillion, who will submit their respective final tenders next month.
Council chief executive John Mothersole said that it was a “rare opportunity” to “sort out the highways once and for all. It has been a marathon and we are on the last lap.”
Despite union concerns over the financial impact on the authority, Mr Mothersole said Sheffield’s bid had been scrutinised rigorously by the Government.
“It has been tested by the Department of Transport and the Treasury for both quality and delivery and has passed every one of these tests with flying colours.”
A Government change to the PFI rules – allowing the council to borrow money instead of the contractor – will save the council around £50m over the life of the contract because it can taken advantage of cheaper interest rates. There could be an immediate saving next year of £12m.
Both potential contractors will have to demonstrate how they will carry out the work, their order of priority and how they will minimise the disruption.
“It’s a huge package of works and it needs to be planned and thought through,” said deputy council leader Bryan Lodge. “We need to keep the city moving.”
But he said the final stage of the process was “great news for Sheffield. Everybody recognises the highways need the work. They have been a big source of complaints from the public.”
Cabinet member Leigh Bramall said the project offered “a great opportunity for the city to refurbish and maintain the roads, pavements and streetscene.
“Although the process has been a long one, we would not be able to do this and raise the standard of our assets to that appropriate for a modern European city, if we had not secured the PFI funding.”
Unions are sceptical in general of the PFI system and remain to be convinced that Sheffield taxpayers will not end up paying a high price over the length of a contract that ties the council for 25 years and allows no room for manoeuvre over any change in town hall priorities.
Local Lib Dems fear the start of repairs could slip. Leader Shaffaq Mohammed said: “Liberal Democrats fought tooth and nail to protect this vital project from large funding cuts during the (Government’s) Comprehensive Spending Review.
“So we have a vested interest in seeing the project come to fruition, even though Labour now controls the council.
He added: “We are nervous that Labour want the final contact agreed by officers behind closed doors.
“There are a lot of questions local people want to ask about how the work will take place and which areas will see improvements first.
“These important issues should be discussed and agreed by politicians out in the open.”