MINISTERS were last night attacked over their failure to upgrade the A1 as MPs condemned the funding system for road improvements.
The influential Commons public accounts committee said nationally important schemes had been axed because of shortcomings in the Government’s system of regional funding allocations and called for an overhaul.
The damning verdict comes after the Government has repeatedly refused to declare the busy route through the region as being of strategic national importance – leaving more than 40 miles of single carriageway and with any improvements having to come out of a limited regional funding pot.
The interim regional transport board last year had to decide what schemes would get the go-ahead from £429m of funding – although the cost of dualling the A1 would have swallowed up much needed cash.
But the board told the Government the entire route must become a road of national importance, making it eligible for more money.
Small low-cost local schemes or projects of national importance have consequently not got appropriate priority, according to the public accounts committee in a new report. It now wants major strategic projects, which would otherwise absorb most of the regional funding, to “belong” in the national roads programme. And specific funds must be provided for small local schemes that would otherwise be indefinitely delayed in favour of wider regional programmes.
The independent RAC Foundation, which campaigns for motorists, said the A1 was of national significance – as well as to the region – as the key link between Scotland and England.
Executive director Edmund King said: “Because of the importance, it should be seen as a national scheme with national funding and it shouldn’t be competing with smaller local schemes.”
Hexham MP Peter Atkinson said ministers had blamed the region for not making upgrading the A1 a priority, but added: “The public accounts committee have actually got it spot on because there was the problem.
“The regional transport board had no alternative not to spend any resources on the A1 otherwise there would be gridlock and problems on the minor routes. The A1 is a major strategic route. Any country in Europe would consider the A1 a major strategic route.”
Andrew Sugden, from the North-East Chamber of Commerce (NECC), said the regional funding allocation and its aims were welcome but warned the region was not being given enough resources for road improvements.
“It doesn’t make sense to have the economies of Yorkshire and the North-East of England separated from Scotland by the stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen,” added the NECC policy chief.
Tyne Bridge MP David Clelland said there had not been enough money in the regional funding pot to upgrade the A1 despite it being the “backbone” of the country.
Berwick MP Alan Beith blasted the current funding system as “fundamentally unsatisfactory” and hopes the public accounts committee report will lead to the A1 being treated as a national responsibility.
The Department for Transport said: “The regional funding process gives regions the freedom to decide upon their own priorities. Removing large schemes from the regional funding process would not necessarily improve the funding prospects of any individual scheme.”
Edward Leigh, committee chairman, said: “I believe areas such as the North-East can lose out. Local schemes lose out because the regional budget is used up by large schemes which should be in the national budget.”
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Who sits on the accounts committee
The Committee of Public Accounts is appointed by the House of Commons to examine public spending.
It is made up of:
Mr Edward Leigh MP (Conservative, Gainsborough) (chairman)
Mr Richard Bacon MP (Conservative, South Norfolk)
Annette Brooke MP (Liberal Democrat, Mid Dorset and Poole North)
Angela Browning MP (Conservative, Tiverton and Honiton)
Chris Bryant MP (Labour, Rhondda)
Rt Hon David Curry MP (Conservative, Skipton and Ripon)
Mr Ian Davidson MP (Labour, Glasgow South West)
Mr Philip Dunne MP (Conservative, Ludlow)
Mr John Healey MP (Labour, Wentworth)
Ian Lucas MP (Labour, Wrexham)
Mr Austin Mitchell MP (Labour, Great Grimsby)
Dr John Pugh MP (Liberal Democrat, Southport)
Rt Hon Don Touhig MP (Labour, Islwyn)
Rt Hon Alan Williams MP (Labour, Swansea West)
Mr Iain Wright MP (Labour, Hartlepool)
Derek Wyatt MP (Labour, Sittingbourne and Sheppey)
The following were also Members of the Committee during the period of the
Greg Clark MP (Conservative, Tunbridge Wells)
Helen Goodman MP (Labour, Bishop Auckland)
Mr Sadiq Khan MP (Labour, Tooting)
Sarah McCarthy-Fry MP (Labour, Portsmouth North).