Prescott accused over road schemes

Changing Britain: Ministers invite wrath of green lobby with motorway and housing decisions
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The Government is to push ahead with five road schemes worth more than pounds 810m and cancel only two controversial projects, "disappointing" both the road lobby and environmentalists.

Gavin Strang, the Transport minister, tried to defuse campaigners' criticism by blaming the decisions on the previous government. He said that ministers were "dealing with a Tory inheritance".

Ministers also launched yet another review - its third in as many months - into England's trunk road system. It was considered by many as motivated by spin, not substance. This latest consultation will try to "integrate" the last national public monopoly - the road system - with a myriad of private transport operators.

Yesterday's most embarrassing decision was the one to go ahead with the pounds 300m Birmingham northern relief road (BNRR), Britain's first toll motorway which will cut a swathe through the city's green belt.

Friends of the Earth claimed John Prescott, the Secretary of State for Environment, Transport and the Regions, had come out against the road in 1993 when he told a local meeting: "I suppose it is ironic, but I do not think BNRR will do anything to relieve congestion as its supporters insist it will."

Gerald Kells, a spokesman for the group, said: "Mr Prescott had caved in to the road lobby and has said yes to a hugely damaging motorway which by his own admission will do no good for traffic in Birmingham."

Dr Strang said Labour had stated before the election that the party was "awaiting the final report from the public inquiry and no decision had been made". The pounds 370m bill for the road will be met by road tolls. Local cars will have to pay pounds 2 to use the new motorway.

Baroness Hayman, the roads minister, denied that a pounds 30m penalty clause - payable to the private consortium building the road if it was cancelled - had influenced ministers.

More than 25 individual road improvements were shelved - and a decision on them will be made next year. Green campaigners applauded ministers' decision to defer judgement on the M25 widening scheme around south-west London. This project - which was given the go-ahead by Tory transport ministers at a cost of pounds 85m - will be a crucial test of Labour's green credentials. Officials and businesses consider it essential for the proposed Terminal 5 at Heathrow.

Designed to ease congestion on the motorway's busiest stretch by widening it between junctions 12 and 15 to up to six lanes, it was attacked by Labour's shadow transport team who said it would be "swamped with queues within 10 years". Yesterday, Dr Strang said he was interested in new "traffic management techniques" to unclog the motorway.

However ,the road lobby was not impressed. A spokesman for the British Road Federation said: "There were no problems with many of those schemes. We think the Government has done this to neutralise the road-building issue."

Environmentalists were "heartened" by some decisions. The Salisbury bypass, one of the most controversial projects, was abandoned. Dr Strang said the need for it was not so overwhelming as to outweigh the environmental impact. The west London approach road project, worth pounds 75m, will also be scrapped.

The Government has paid a high price for its principles. Taxpayers forked out more than pounds 10m buying 150 properties in west London for the A40.

Green light for roads

Birmingham northern relief road - A private toll road to relieve a busy section of the M6.

A13 Thames gateway - This includes upgrade of the A13 trunk corridor in east London.

M66 Denton-Middleton - A five-mile stretch to complete Manchester's orbital motorway.

A564 Derby southern bypass - The final section of a road in Leicestershire which relieves congestion on the A50.

A2/M2 Cobham widening - Part of the Channel tunnel link package in north Kent to cope with traffic when Ebbsfleet link station opens.

Red light for roads

Salisbury bypass - Project to relieve Wiltshire town was bitterly opposed by environmentalists.

A40, west London --- Would have improved approach to capital.

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