New setback to hopes for upgrade of A303
The Government may not finalise plans to end the traffic misery on the A303 cross-country road between the South West and London until after the general election, raising fears the vital road-building scheme could be derailed.
Ministers have revealed a feasibility study looking into improving the A303-A30-A358 highway will be finished by spring 2015, much later than many pushing for upgrades to the single carriageways had hoped.
The timing of the report, which will determine the scale and cost of improvements on an often snarled-up stretch of road between Devon and Hampshire, could clash with the May election that year.
One Tory MP questioned whether a Labour government, if it won, would fund such a massive project outside its heartlands.
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But a Labour MP criticised the Government for not making a "firm commitment" and argued the prospect of upgrading what is known as the old London road is "further away than ever".
In a written parliamentary answer, Transport Minister Robert Goodwill said he expected six feasibility studies to "tackle some of the most notorious and long-standing road hot spots in the country", including the A303-A30-A358, to have "reached conclusions by spring 2015".
Oliver Colvile, Conservative MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, who tabled the question, said: "The Government has for many years said this is very important. But nothing ever seems to get done about it. We need to make sure ministers carry this through.
"We have lost our (Plymouth) airport. And while we have some improved train links, we need to ensure we get better connectivity to the South East. I would want to see this before 2015.
"I think if there is a change of Government I don't think you will get this investment in the peninsula. The coalition Government, led by the Conservatives, has delivered significant investment for the South West."
The South West is dominated by Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs, who point to a state-funded £50 annual cut to South West Water bills as evidence of delivering for the region – though Labour argues it instigated the hand-out when in power.
Ben Bradshaw, Labour MP for Exeter, has previously described the Government's commitment to a study as "spin".
He said last night: "We've had feasibility studies before. What Westcountry business wants is a firm commitment to actual funding and a timetable.
"Given this Government has slashed investment in infrastructure, in spite of repeated calls by Labour and the International Monetary Fund to invest more, this scheme is further away than ever."
The Department for Transport has confirmed its intention to complete a "scoping" report by the end of the year.
This will pave the way a full study that details options ministers will consider and how much it will cost the taxpayer. A value-for-money test will be key.
While road-tolling will not be considered, local authorities may be told to part-fund some sections.
In 2004, plans to improve the route through the Blackdown Hills – an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – were abandoned.
Instead, upgrading the A358 from Ilminster to the M5 motorway at Taunton was given the go-head, despite business leaders in Devon and Cornwall complaining it would take people away from the far South West. However, the plan was shelved five years later.
Another conundrum will be navigating a road past Stonehenge in Wiltshire, which is an infamous pinch-point.
Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, announced the feasibility studies this summer as part of a £100 billion Government commitment to new infrastructure.
A campaign led by Somerset, Devon and Wiltshire county councils claims effectively creating a dual carriageway from the M5 in Devon to the M3 in Hampshire would create more than 21,000 new jobs.
A Department for Transport spokesman said: "The Government recognises the importance of the A303 and that is why a detailed study has been agreed to look into the challenges and improvements that can be made.
"The Department will now work closely with local authorities and partners to decide the next steps in helping to improve the A303 for motorists and local businesses, with the scope of the study defined by the end of 2013."