TRANSPORT SECRETARY Alistair Darling this week signalled a radical shift towards regional road planning by giving Yorkshire and the East Midlands a virtually free rein over £1.25bn of spending.
Regional Transport Boards (RTBs) will be set up to decide on priorities for the three year funding, which must include all local authority road maintenance, smaller local transport schemes and Highways Agency schemes of regional importance.
But the industry immediately expressed fears that the RTBs could be used to axe schemes on the Agency's Targeted Programme of Improvements (TPI) to meet budget constraints.
Chancellor Gordon Brown gives his prebudget statement today and is expected to signal significant cutbacks in spending.
'The DfT is looking to devolve more decisions to local levels. But money is tight, ' said Freight Transport Association highways manager Stephen Kelly. 'Deeming a scheme to be of regional rather than national importance adds ammunition to those who fear detrunking and the lower priority that it suggests.'
RTBs will be established in all English regions, with the Highways Agency's TPI carved up between them.
Only schemes deemed to be of 'national importance' by the Department for Transport (DfT), such as widening the M1 and M6, will remain under DfT control.
All other schemes will be prioritised by the RTBs, with the DfT giving final approval.
The move is also intended to give the Highways Agency more focus.
Last week the National Audit Office - the government's spending watchdog - slammed the Agency for being too cautious in its use of congestion busting measures readily employed abroad (see box).
Details of how the RTBs will work remain vague and the timetable for their introduction has yet to be decided.
Consultation is expected to be announced later this week.
The DfT denied that the move would mean TPI schemes would be axed. A spokesman said that some of the £700M package for Yorkshire and £550M package for the East Midlands must be used for TPI schemes approved for start in the next three years.
In Yorkshire this includes the £19M A63 Melton grade separated junction which started on site this summer, and the £160M A1(M) Ferrybridge to Hook Moor scheme. It also includes work on the A64 and two schemes on the A66.
In the East Midlands it includes the A1 Peterborough to Blyth, the A46 Newark to Widmerpool improvement and the A453 widening.
Funding announcements for all other English regions are expected within weeks, but the south west got an unexpected boost this week with approval to start work on the A30 Bodmin to Indian Queens scheme in Cornwall and a decision to proceed with widening the A358 in Somerset (see page 6).