The pre-election paralysis of the government machine showed itself yesterday when ministers announced that they were postponing any decision over the Salisbury bypass until next spring at the earliest.
The decision over the pounds 76m Wiltshire scheme means that no work can start until well after the general election and that this government will be unable even to let out contracts to build the 11-mile road.
The road, which skirts Salisbury and three adjoining villages, is set to be the next cause celebre of the anti-roads lobby in the wake of confrontations over Twyford Down, Batheaston by-pass, the M11 link road and the Newbury bypass. But pro-roads groups, who have been feeling abandoned by the Tories' shelving of many road plans following budget cuts and a change of policy, see Salisbury as a test of the Government's resolve to retain any vestiges of a new roads programme.
Sir George Young, Secretary of State for Transport, stressed yesterday that contrary to recent reports, there had been no row between him and John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment. He said ministers were "minded" to give the go-ahead to the scheme which he announced had been approved by the inspector of the 151-day public inquiry held in 1993/94.
However, two developments since the hearings - the declaration of a site of Special Scientific Interest at East Harnham Meadows south of the city, and a reassessment of the methodology used to quantify the benefits of road schemes - meant that he was seeking further views of interested parties before making a final decision.
The inspector, Sir Peter Buchanan, argues that "action must be taken" because without the bypass, "flows on a number of routes would reach very high levels resulting in serious congestion". However, environmentalists say that much of the traffic involves local journeys and would not be helped by the bypass. Sir George accepted yesterday that only "40 per cent of the traffic" would be displaced off the existing road, but said "this is a very high proportion and would have a big impact".
The delay will heighten the debate over the value of road schemes. In December 1994, the obscure Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment, recommended that the Government changed the way it assessed road schemes by taking into account extra traffic attracted onto the new road by its very existence.
Environmentalists were predictably angry that ministers were minded to proceed with the bypass. Simon Festing, transport campaigner for Friends of the Earth, criticised the Government's "flawed decision making". "There is no justification for this destructive road scheme as it was part of a long-distance strategic route and other improvements on that route have now been dropped," he said.
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