Election war of words over A11 dualling

Sarah HallAn election war or words erupted last night as the Liberal Democrats were accused of facing both ways over the dualling of the A11.Sarah Hall

An election war or words erupted last night as the Liberal Democrats were accused of facing both ways over the dualling of the A11.

Labour has pledged to dual the remaining nine-mile stretch of the road if it forms the next government - provided an inspector carrying out a public inquiry concludes it should go ahead.

Supporters of dualling point to the �600m boost it would give to the region's economy and argue it is a key milestone in ending Norfolk's transport deficit, helping tourism and boosting business, jobs and skills in the county.

And in January the EDP urged ministers to 'get on and dual it' when a public inquiry into the upgrade of the road between Thetford and Barton Mills came to an end.

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Last week on a visit to Norwich Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg said his party was 'absolutely committed' to getting the final single carriageway section of the road dualled and supported the campaign of two Norfolk Lib Dem candidates Simon Wright and Norman Lamb in favour of dualling.

But the strength of the party's commitment to the project was called in to question by the Conservatives after Lib Dem transport spokesman Norman Baker told them he 'had been unable to find any commitment by him [Nick Clegg] to dual the A11'.

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In an exchange of letters between the two sides, Mr Baker said the Lib Dem policy was to switch 90pc of the government budget for major roads to a new rail expansion fund, so bids for roads such as the A11 would have to come from the pot of money remaining if they met 'robust environmental criteria.'

Conservative shadow transport spokeswoman Theresa Villiers immediately accused Mr Clegg of making a 'shallow promise' given the Lib Dems' pledge to cut the major road budget and pump cash into railways.

Labour's Charles Clarke, who has lobbied for dualling, accused the Lib Dems of dishonesty.

The Lib Dem statement also appeared to be at odds with the 'resounding yes' answer given by Mr Clegg over dualling in response to a question from Shaping Norfolk's Future about whether each party would commit to starting the final part of the dualling of the A11 immediately after the election.

Last night the party, which has been riding high in the opinion polls in the wake of Mr Clegg's strong TV debate performances, attempted to clear up the confusion with a new statement, making clear their policy was to cut the �6bn major roads budget in favour of reducing rail fares, but stating some road schemes would get priority.

'Obviously some roads schemes will be prioritised for funding from the regional funding allocation and the remaining major roads budget and, as Nick Clegg made clear, the A11 is one of them, but we cannot go on building new road after road,' a party spokesman said.

Norman Lamb, Lib Dem candidate for North Norfolk, also moved to set the record straight, saying: 'I am happy to confirm the dualling of the A11 is seen as a priority. Nick made that clear and he's the leader. We absolutely see it as a priority for the Norfolk economy.'

But Richard Bacon, Conservative candidate for South Norfolk, accused the party of varying its political messages to suit different audiences.

'It doesn't surprise me that the transport spokesman says one thing and the leader another because that is absolutely normal for the Lib Dems,' Mr Bacon said. 'They will print leaflets in the same village saying completely different things. They do not have a coherent approach to policies or to government.'

But, in comments mirroring those of Tory leader David Cameron in a recent visit to Norwich, Mr Bacon also conceded that while the Conservatives wanted to see the A11 dualled, they could not guarantee it.

'I would love to be able to give a cast iron guarantee that the Conservatives would dual the A11 but I cannot do that,' Mr Bacon added. 'However, we recognise the importance of it and all Conservative MPs in the county will be fighting very hard for it.'

Transport secretary Lord Adonis this week said that work to start dualling could begin this year once the outcome of the public inquiry is known.

Mr Clarke, Labour candidate for Norwich South, who is facing a strong challenge from Lib Dem Simon Wright, said his opponents had been 'caught red-handed in their dishonest attempts to mislead the voters of Norwich.'

'They will say anything, however untrue, to seek votes. Norman Lamb's statement only adds confusion as he gives no firm commitment, only that the A11 'is seen as a priority',' Mr Clarke said.

He also challenged Mr Wright, who was last night the bookies favourite to win the seat, to 'come clean and admit the truth, which is that there is that there is no Liberal Democrat commitment to complete the dualling of the A11.'

Visit www.edp24.co.uk/elections for more news and views on the election, including details of who is standing where you live.

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