Road-building blow for market towns

The prospect of a government U-turn on the funding of major transport schemes receded last night - leaving little hope that bypasses will be built for traffic-choked market towns across East Anglia.

The prospect of a government U-turn on the funding of major transport schemes receded last night - leaving little hope that bypasses will be built for traffic-choked market towns across East Anglia.

From Swaffham and Dereham to Brandon and Bungay, market towns across the region have been campaigning for new roads to prevent regular snarl-ups along their over-crowded streets.

The message from Norfolk and Suffolk county councils has been simple - their hands have been tied by a Whitehall funding system that favours only schemes of “regional” importance.

Now it appears the government has decided not to change the funding system - despite an admission from the roads minister last year that “mistakes” were made when it came to drawing up regional priorities.

Nowhere has the battle for a bypass been more frustrating than at Long Stratton on the A140 Norwich to Ipswich road, where many of the 18,000 vehicles a day end up sitting in long tailbacks as they hit the 30mph zone.

More than £1m was spent drawing up a route in 2001.

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Then the government introduced the regional allocation funding system, with Long Stratton deemed a low priority by the East of England Regional Assembly, and the project was effectively shelved.

Hopes were first raised that the system would be overhauled by Gordon Brown in his 2009 comprehensive spending review, promised to be a root-and-branch review of the way government worked.

Then in October, roads minister Stephen Ladyman told the EDP that “mistakes” were being made with regional prioritising - specifically mentioning the decision to put back dualling of the A11 Barton Mills to Thetford section until 2011 at the earliest.

He suggested the government would look again at the way projects were funded, which spurred Adrian Gunson, county council cabinet member for transportation, to write to the department for transport, asking for Long Stratton bypass to be reconsidered.

With funding decisions potentially being overhauled, he wrote stating that the DfT should not now be slamming the door on the Long Stratton bypass, wasting £1m of taxpayers' money already spent drawing up the scheme.

Yesterday he said that he had received no reply - and a spokeswoman for the DfT said that the review of roads would only ask regional assemblies to see if any schemes had slipped through the net, not return power to the county councils.

She said: “The government is asking all the regions to review their priorities in two years' time. I would envisage county councils will be consulted as to whether they think any projects should have been funded but weren't.

“But there will not be any review of the way that funding is allocated.”

Last night Mr Gunson told the EDP: “We were consulted three months ago by the government on their way of allocating funding and anticipated they would make some enhancement to the system.

“Now it appears they won't do anything, still letting the regions just sort it out in what we regard as a faulty structure. We've gone round the houses for no reason.

“It's unlikely a simple review of projects being funded will get us anywhere because of the lack of funding for the eastern region. The situation is more depressing than I thought.”

Of the four road building projects on the table for Norfolk, three are on the regionally important trunk roads - dualling the A11 at Thetford, dualling the A47 at Blofield, and safety improvements further west on the A47 at Mattishall.

Only the Northern Distributor Road around Norwich would be controlled by the county council, and that might need to be part-funded by a toll.

Mr Gunson added: “Just as Norfolk needs it most, after 30 years of building bypasses in the county, work is now coming to a halt. The government is reducing the money it spends on road improvements and Norfolk towns are missing out.”

“We're being pushed from pillar to post by the government. Things like Long Stratton fall by the wayside, no market towns get a look in. Norfolk is missing out.”