The M6 Toll celebrates its fifth anniversary this week – originally billed as “Fast, effective relief to the M6” but has it lived up to expectations and what are the wider benefits it has helped bring to the West Midlands? Alun Thorne, Head of Business, reports.

Congestion costs the West Midlands more than £2billion every year. Not surprisingly transport chiefs have long sought a solution and five years ago it appeared they found the Holy Grail – the M6 Toll.

The £900million motorway, which bypasses the conurbation between Coleshill in the south and Cannock in the north, was designed to take traffic off the busy M6 corridor through Birmingham and re-direct it onto a free-flowing alternative through north Warwickshire and southern Staffordshire.

There had been widespread opposition to the 27-mile route, from environmentalists and residents. This was overcome – albeit after a High Court battle and stubborn site protests – and on a freezing cold morning in December 2003 then transport secretary Alistair Darling declared the route open.

First through the toll booths was flamboyant Staffordshire developer Fred Pritchard, who headed a parade of his beloved Aston Martins, the iconic sports cars proudly displaying the Union Flag to herald a new era for Britain’s transport network.

Mr Pritchard said the motorway would bring new prosperity to Staffordshire by opening the door to investment.

Five years on and he still holds this view.

“The M6 Toll has brought significant prosperity to southern Staffordshire – Cannock Chase in particular,” he said.

His own company, the Pritchard Group, has benefited considerably with a raft of new developments along the motorway’s corridor, including the Orbital Plaza site, instantly recognisable for its 12-storey Ramada Hotel.

“These developments are creating lasting benefits for the area in terms of jobs and investment – all this would not have been possible had it not been for the toll motorway,” he added.

John de Kanter, chief executive of Staffordshire inward investment agency InStaffs, is another to believe the motorway has had a positive impact on the area.

“The M6 Toll has done a lot to improve accessibility to Stoke-on-Trent and

Staffordshire. In particular it has helped to place Cannock on the map and a number of developments such as that at Kingswood Lakeside and Lichfield South office development.

“The speculative build office market there has boomed, with the vast majority of Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent’s new 365,000 sq ft of development being based in the south of the area.”

The beneficial effect can be seen in the price of commercial land. In Cannock Chase it has increased around 75 per cent since the opening of the motorway, although this is likely to have been pegged back slightly with the onset of the credit crunch.

One sector in particular has helped to drive forward investment – logistics.

The demand for new distribution depots has developed exponentially with the growth of the motorway’s development corridor.

Across the UK as a whole, the sector is worth almost £75billion to the national economy and employs around 2.3million people in almost 200,000 different firms.

In the West Midlands there are an estimated 236,000 people working in the industry – around 9.5 per cent of the region’s entire workforce – although this figure is likely to have declined slightly following the collapse of Aldridge-based Amtrak earlier this year.

The geographical position of the West Midlands is the single most important factor in the development of the industry, with road, rail and air links all converging in the region.

For this reason, the transport and logistics marketplace in the West Midlands is dominated by large operators. Almost every major shipping or logistics provider is present in the region.

One of the most significant districution developments of the past five years has been the decision by consumer goods giant Unilever to invest more than £50million in the creation of a massive facility at the Kingswood Lakeside site in Cannock, capitalising on the town’s proximity to both the M6 and the M6 Toll. Just a few miles north at Stafford’s Acton Gate is a huge Argos facility.

The nearby A38 corridor is also a logistics hotspot.

According to InStaffs more than one thousand new distribution sector jobs are set to be created on the A38 corridor between Burton-on-Trent and Lichfield.

Regeneration work has created more than 1.5million sq ft of storage space.

The facilities, which straddle the busy road – Centrum 100, Centre 38, Wellington Road and Fradley Park – are said to be some of the best logistical links currently available in the UK.

The biggest concentration of units is on Centrum 100 in Burton-upon-Trent, with four facilities, ranging from the ex-Dunelm 100,000 sq ft building to the 460,000 sq ft Opus Axis, providing a total of 927,000 sq ft of space.

Mr de Kanter added: “The M6 Toll has had a major influence and improved access to the M6, A50, M42 and even the M1.

“This means that distribution companies – keen to reduce journey times – can be in Nottingham and Birmingham within 40 minutes, Stoke-on-Trent and the Black Country in 50 minutes and Derby in 20.”

While the inward investment has been one of the successes of the motorway, it still has to be judged on its fundamental reason for being – easing congestion.

If it is to be judged on this then it can at best be said to have been a qualified success.

Five years ago Stephen Allen, chief executive of Macquarie Infrastructure Group, the Australian investment bank that owns the motorway and its operator Midland Expressway, said that UK motorists would be able to “experience the transportation and economic benefits of the M6 Toll”.

It was designed to reduce journey times through the West Midlands by up to 45 minutes by taking an expected 120,000 vehicles a day off the congested stretch of the M6 each day.

This was expected to rise to up to 144,000 vehicles off the M6 after ten years.

However, while motorists have not exactly shunned the route, they have hardly flocked to it in droves.

According to Macquarie’s own figures, between April and June this year the average daily traffic volumes on the road were 41,635, down 13.2 per cent (47,964) on the same period last year.

Average daily revenue also saw a decline, down 2.8 per cent from £168,479 in 2007 to £163,800.

It will be interesting to survey the picture in a further five years.