Ministers have been ridiculed for delaying a planning decision on a £1.5bn road scheme in the North of England, which was hailed as part of the Government's ‘Project Speed’ initiative to deliver the benefits of infrastructure projects more quickly.
In a statement to Parliament, transport minister Huw Merriman said it had ‘been necessary’ to extend the deadline for a decision on National Highways’ application for a development consent order (DCO) for the A66 Northern Trans-Pennine scheme.
Ministers received the Planning Inspectorate’s report on the application on 7 August, meaning that the deadline for a decision was Tuesday (8 November).
However, Mr Merriman extended the deadline by four months to 7 March 2024.
In a consultation document earlier this year, National Highways project director Lee Hillyard wrote: ‘As part of the Government’s Project Speed initiative, we are working in different ways to ensure we deliver major infrastructure projects as efficiently as possible to bring benefits to people sooner.’
In response to the delay, National Highways said it was ‘ready to deliver the project should we receive a positive decision’.
The Secretary of State for Transport has informed us the deadline for a decision has been extended to 7 March 2024.— A66 Northern Trans-Pennine (@A66NTP) November 8, 2023
We remain confident in our proposals and are ready to deliver the project should we receive a positive decision
Find out more here https://t.co/JmFUTbtKYX pic.twitter.com/7iEQqJlGZ0
Transport Action Network campaigner Rebecca Lush said: ‘Unsurprisingly, the secretary of state is in no rush to approve this controversial and costly mega-road scheme. It will harm precious landscapes, damage internationally important habitats, destroy a seven-centuries old gypsy horse fair site, and increase carbon emissions by over 2.7 million tonnes. Project Speed has finally hit the buffers of reality.’
Ms Lush said the delay represented the 18th time in four years that ministers had delayed a decision on large road schemes.
She said: ‘Rather than blaming planning or objectors for delays, it is time the DfT and National Highways took responsibility for their own actions. Instead of progressing destructive, carbon-intensive road schemes they should focus on delivering better public transport in the North.’
Dr Neil Hudson, Conservative MP for Penrith and The Border, said: ‘I know I speak for all the communities along the A66 when I say that we need to progress with this dualling upgrade.
‘For those of us who know all too well how many collisions and even fatalities take place along our stretch of the A66, we need this upgrade to make the route safer, ultimately help save lives, in addition to the economic benefits this infrastructure will bring to the region.’
Mr Merriman said the delay was to allow consideration of matters including those not resolved at the time ministers received the Planning Inspectorate report, including information from National Highways regarding impacts on the North Pennine Moors Special Area of Conservation (SAC).
This is a reference to a complex exchange of correspondence between the Department for Transport (DfT), National Highways and Natural England. This included a request to National Highways and Natural England for information on what speed restrictions would be necessary to mitigate the impacts of the scheme to enable a conclusion of 'no adverse impact' on the integrity of the SAC.
In its response, National Highways said that while speed restrictions could give rise to some air quality benefits, ‘any reduction in speed limits ... compared to those that form the current Project proposals would be contrary to the Project’s objectives’.