Minister hints at roads funding U-turn

Fresh hope that vital road improvement schemes across the region could finally receive funding has emerged following a meeting between transport chiefs and the roads minister.

Fresh hope that vital road improvement schemes across the region could finally receive funding has emerged following a meeting between transport chiefs and the roads minister.

Projects to build bypasses on traffic-choked routes in Norfolk and Suffolk may get off the ground, thanks to a new way of dishing out government cash that could pave the way for bypasses around four villages on the A12 between Lowestoft and Ipswich, as well as schemes in Bungay, Brandon and Long Stratton.

Suffolk County Council's portfolio holder for roads and transport, councillor Guy McGregor, said he felt new optimism after meeting roads minister Dr Stephen Ladyman to discuss highways concerns in the area.

In a scheme known as top-slicing, a proportion of the cash awarded by the government to the eastern region could be ring-fenced - set aside - for bypasses which, while vital for communities, often get squeezed out by bigger regional projects.

Mr McGregor said: "In a democratic society, you cannot say to residents there is no hope for improvement in their environment, which is degraded by excessive vehicle movement."

Later this year, he is set to take over as chairman of the Transport Portfolio Holders' Group, which advises the East of England Regional Assembly on which road improvement schemes should be given priority.

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He added: "I want to use a concept of top-slicing, whereby we allocate say a fifth or tenth of the overall money given to the eastern region to local schemes, costing between £5m and £35m, to ensure they don't miss out."

Mr McGregor also revealed that Dr Ladyman had indicated that environmental concerns would not always veto road improvement schemes and that it was often possible to mitigate the impact.

He said: "This way, we can take away heavy traffic from the centre of towns, but at the same time not destroy the countryside. For example, Bungay is being degraded because we can't build a bypass for environmental reasons."

Mr McGregor's counterpart at Norfolk County Council, councillor Adrian Gunson, said he would be delighted if schemes such as the Long Stratton bypass finally got off the ground, but he remained sceptical.

He said: "If I could see something tangible, I would be pleased, but so far it's just words. It would be nice if we could get the Long Stratton bypass done, but in correspondence I have had with the government there has been very little encouragement.

"The whole point is the pot of cash is far too small and therefore if you ring-fence an element of it, you are going to have less money for schemes that currently have priority. If the total of the money is just the same, it won't go very far."

Waveney MP Bob Blizzard, a long-time campaigner for improvements on the A12 between Lowestoft and Ipswich, also attended the meeting with Dr Ladyman. He said: "I was enormously encouraged by the minister's response. We now all have to work together to get this scheme up the region's priority list or persuade them to slice money back to Suffolk and hope that the county council will make it their top priority. This scheme would tackle the worst stretch of the A12."

A Department for Transport spokesman confirmed that hiving off cash for local projects could take place as long as the regional body provided detailed proposals. He could not comment on the talks between Mr McGregor and Dr Ladyman on environmental issues, but said schemes must take into account the impact on the surrounding area and prove value for money.