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Trunk road downgrade plan sparks spending cut fears

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TREASURY OFFICIALS want to downgrade some motorways and trunk roads to a new 'regional roads' status, it emerged this week.

Roads facing a downgrade from strategic to regional status include the M5, the A1 north of Newcastle, all trunk roads in East Anglia, and the A2/M2 between London and the Channel Tunnel.

The A303 route to the west country past Stonehenge has already been reclassifi ed (NCE 3 February).

Motoring groups expressed fears that the move will lead to spending cuts. They said it would force the newly classified routes to compete with housing and regeneration projects.

Treasury offi cials slipped the proposals out in a consultation document called Devolving decision making: a consultation on regional funding allocations on 2 December last year as part of Chancellor Gordon Brown's pre-budget announcement (see box).

The RAC is to lobby MPs in the north, south west and East Anglia. Parts of these regions will be left without a 'route of strategic national importance' if the plans are approved.

It warned road spending investment levels will fall if transport decision making was devolved to the regions. RAC representatives were due to meet treasury minister John Healey today.

The consultation paves the way for the government to publish regional funding allocations for transport, housing and regeneration from 2005/06.

As yet undefi ned regional bodies would have powers to switch funding between budget areas or reprofi e spending over a period of years.

The RAC fears regions could drain transport resources to fund housing demanded by deputy prime minister John Prescott's Sustainable Communities plan.

'The purpose of these changes is clearly to save money, since ministers can cut regional budgets without having to specify where the cuts should fall, ' said RAC Motoring Trust executive director Edmund King.

The new regional routes have been reclassifi d by the Highways Agency according to traffic flows and freight movements.

Links to ports, airports and other major cities are also taken into account.

The RAC disputed the Agency's assessment.

'To say that roads west of Bristol, north of Newcastle and across East Anglia are not of national strategic importance is clearly ridiculous, ' said King.

The reight Transport Association also expressed dismay at the plan. It fears that tight regional budgets could pit promoters of regional schemes against each other.

In the north west, it argues that promoters of Manchester's Metrolink tram extension will face direct competition with the promoters of the New Mersey Crossing road bridge scheme.

The Department for Transport insisted that transport budgets would be unaffected.

'The Department will give funding to each region and regional bodies will state what they think the main priorities are, ' said a spokesman. 'But the Highways Agency will be involved in that, and ministers will still make the decisions.' Mark Hansford

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