Essex man courted with pounds 87m road improvement

The Conservative election campaign in Essex will today receive a boost with the promise of an pounds 87.5m road improvement scheme funded by the taxpayer.

Essex is one of the key battlegrounds for the election - with a number of marginal Tory seats which are being targeted for visits by all three party leaders. But a most surprising initiative is due to be taken at 6am today with the publication of a "Conservative News" press release, headed: "John Watts MP, roads minister, announces pounds 87.5 million road scheme."

It is most improper for government announcements to be made at this stage of an election campaign, let alone on Conservative Party notepaper. But it is most unlikely that civil servants in the Department of Transport would have agreed to issue a press release through the official Whitehall machinery.

That begs the question of whether such a decision could have been made following the prorogation of Parliament - or whether it had deliberately been held back by Mr Watts to heighten the impact of his announcement.

When Mr watts made a similar announcement last week, of a pounds 300,000 road project for Kent, he was accused of abusing his ministerial position by Labour campaigns spokesman Brian Wilson, who said: "We are going to see a lot of fictional money being scattered around like confetti over the next few weeks by ministers who know they will never be in a position to spend it. Why should anyone believe a ministerial announcement which ... comes on Tory notepaper?"

Nevertheless, in spite of the impropriety of the timing, it appears that decisions have been taken, and are being doled out for political advantage. Mr Watts says in his handout: "Noise on the A120 between Stansted and Braintree is to be reduced, and a section of the M11 is to be widened. The Highways Agency will carry out a review of noise mitigation measures on the A120, and then start work on the detailed design and procurement process. Once this work has been completed, the pounds 87.5m scheme will be ready for construction when funding is given."

That hint that funding has not yet been signed, sealed and delivered is heightened when Mr Watts adds that he is "delighted to announce this preliminary work will go ahead". The word "preliminary" suggests something less than pounds 87.5m.

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