Birmingham’s transportation cabinet member, Len Gregory, is not known for his ability to take quick decisions.
The future of the A38 Tyburn Road bus lane, for example, remains undecided more than four years after it was “temporarily” suspended.
So when Coun Gregory delays, again, a decision on awarding the contract for a £2.2 billion Private Finance Initiative makeover for Birmingham’s roads and street lights, there is an obvious temptation to say, well it’s just old Len being ultra cautious again.
The spin coming from the Council House is that Coun Gregory simply wants to be sure, in the current dire economic climate, that both of the consortiums left bidding for the prestige project have access to the bank loans they will need to fulfil a 25-year contract.
This might be a question worth asking if the two bidders were small-scale operators pitching for their first major infrastructure scheme. But the candidates are huge players in the construction industry. Amey, for example, has teamed up with Atkins Construction and EDF Energy, while Birmingham Street Services is an amalgam of Laing O’Rourke, Vinci and Amec.
If firms like these cannot give sufficient undertakings to bankroll a project set to last for a quarter of a century, then the recession is far worse than anyone is letting on.
Coun Gregory will get his assurances by return of post. Indeed, Birmingham Street Services has already made it clear that it has access to the money. It would be astonishing if Amey reacted in anything other than the same way.
It is of course right for the council to check the paperwork carefully, but having already succeeded in obtaining government approval for PFI credits worth £588 million it might be a good idea to get on with a project that has already been the subject of lengthy delays before ministers change their minds and reallocate the money to a city that can show it is rather more eager to get on with things.
This project, which will eventually replace every street light in Birmingham, resurface every road and replace outdated traffic signs, has been in the planning stage for almost six years. It is true that Coun Gregory inherited the scheme at an early stage from the former Labour administration. It is also the case that the first year of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition was coloured by acute suspicion of PFI schemes, which no doubt resulted in further delays.
Eventually, however, the time for talking must stop. Assurances can be given, and re-issued, banks can be consulted, discussions held with government ministers and council colleagues brought into line.
But sometime soon, a decision has to be made based on the best evidence available. That time is fast approaching, as Coun Gregory knows full well.