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Roads programme to be speeded up: MacGregor dismisses protest campaigns and seeks to cut times for major project approval by five years

JOHN MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport, signalled yesterday that he was prepared to ignore mounting opposition to the Government's roads programme by announcing plans to speed up the system.

Mr MacGregor said he wanted the average time between the initial announcement of a road scheme to its completion cut from 13 years to 10 and, later, 8.

The publication of the package of measures coincided with the release of the six Twyford Down anti-roads protesters jailed for contempt of court two weeks ago and the publication of a report by the Council for the Protection of Rural England and the Countryside Commission which said the 'tranquillity of the rural south-east (had been) shattered by growth in development, roads and traffic'.

Mr MacGregor also announced the creation on 1 April next year of a new highways agency to take over responsibility for undertaking and maintaining new trunk roads and motorways. It will have a staff of 2,000.

The package was met with some scepticism by the pro-roads lobby, which doubted the Department of Transport's ability to pay for a speeded-up programme as pounds 1.4bn is already spent each year on new roads. Edmund King, campaigns manager of the RAC, said: 'If they want to build roads more quickly, it will take more money. I doubt that the Treasury will be able to deliver.'

Indeed, Mr MacGregor appeared to confirm this when, at a press conference, he said: 'I do not expect to be able to increase the (road building) programme in any substantial way.' Although accepting that the bulk of the programme went on construction costs, he argued that there would be savings in the planning stages.

Ministers hope that the Highways Agency will be more efficient than the Department of Transport. Mr MacGregor also revealed that the present programme of 500 schemes would be reviewed to give priorities as currently 'equal diligence' is shown with all projects.

Mr MacGregor dismissed the growing protest movement against the road-building programme which has recently won a series of victories at Oxleas Wood, Hereford, and Hindhead Common.

He said on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that '99 per cent of the population actually want a bypass if their village or town needs by-passing. They want improved roads because more and more people are using them.' Other improvements would be brought about by helping public inquiry inspectors speed up production of their reports and the elimination of 'bureaucratic and time wasting procedures'. He emphasised however, that there would be no reduction in opportunities for the public to comment.

The CPRE and Countryside Commission report said 'undisturbed countryside in the South-east was disappearing' so fast that within 10 years it would be gone. 'The most obvious change in the last 30 years comes from increased noise from roads. In some areas it is . . . difficult to escape from road noise.'

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