Essex road scheme takes a confusing turn ...

The Department of Transport was thrown into complete confusion yesterday by a ministerial "announcement" of an pounds 87.5m road scheme for Essex. John Watts, the Minister for Roads, issued a press notice on "Conservative News" notepaper, announcing the scheme during a visit to the county, in which the Tories are defending three key marginal constituencies.

He said: "Noise on the A120 between Stansted and Braintree is to be reduced, and a section of the M11 is to be widened."

The news was presented as a victory for the "tireless" campaign that had been conducted by two local MPs, Tony Newton, Leader of the Commons, and Sir Alan Haselhurst, MP for Saffron Waldon.

But when The Independent asked the Department of Transport for the facts; when the decision had been taken and why the announcement had been improperly made during an election campaign, all questions were referred to the department's political adviser. A departmental press officer said: "We're in purdah; there's an election on. It is not a departmental matter."

The Highways Agency said it would try to find the answers to factual questions about the scheme, specifically when it had been asked to carry out a review of noise mitigation measures on the A120.

Some hours later, the ministerial political adviser, Lucy Miller, said that the announcement of the roads scheme had been made as part of the November budget package, along with many other roads schemes. She thought that Mr Watts's announcement of the noise mitigation review was "a genuine announcement."

But it is departmental policy to make public announcements of road schemes as early as possible, to relieve local concern and clarify any threat of blight on affected homes and other property. Ms Miller thought the decision on the noise review had been taken "some time ago".

At that point the Highways Agency said that the Department of Transport press officer who had earlier refused to say anything would now answer all questions. The department was unable to answer any questions because it is caught up in election rules which prohibit any action that might be taken as partisan. The Independent was told later that the Watts scheme was not a government scheme at all, but an Essex County Council project, and that no decision had yet been taken on the noise review.