The government has postponed a formal planning decision about the £1.3bn upgrade to the A66 Northern Trans-Pennine route.
Transport secretary Mark Harper had been due to rule on the future of the scheme, which would see the dualling of remaining single-lane sections of the 50-mile stretch between Penrith and Scotch Corner as well as junction improvements, this week.
But transport minister Huw Merriman announced on Wednesday (8 November) that a decision would be pushed back by four months to 7 March, partly to allow more time to consider the impact of the scheme on the North Pennine Moors Special Area of Conservation.
Four contractors were appointed to the scheme – described as “one of the most critical road upgrades in the north of England” – in October 2022. However, one of them, Costain, left the project in June following a “change in contracting strategy”. Kier, Balfour Beatty and Keltbray remain on the project.
Merriman said in a written statement to Parliament: “The reason for the extension is to allow for further consideration of matters including those not resolved at the time the examining authority’s report was received by the secretary of state.
“This will include the consideration of information submitted by the applicant regarding impacts on the North Pennine Moors Special Area of Conservation, to ensure compliance with the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017.”
The delays come despite the project being designated as a “pathfinder” for Project Speed, a government initiative to deliver infrastructure projects faster.
National Highways, which is expected to publish plans for its third road investment strategy (RIS3) next year, brushed off the planning delays.
“We remain confident in our proposals and we stand ready to deliver these improvements, subject to receiving a positive decision on the development consent order and authorisation to proceed to construction,” said a spokesperson.
According to the agency, the planned upgrade will improve safety, reduce congestion and boost strategic regional and national connectivity, particularly for hauliers.
Heavy goods vehicles account for a quarter of all traffic on the road, it argues, and any delays to journeys can have an extremely negative effect on business, including lost working time and missed shipment slots.
However, environmental campaign group Transport Action Network said the focus should be on improved public transport.
Rebecca Lush, the group’s roads and climate campaigner, said: “Unsurprisingly, the secretary of state is in no rush to approve this controversial and costly mega-road scheme.
“It will harm precious landscapes, damage internationally important habitats, destroy a seven-centuries-old gypsy horse fair site, and increase carbon emissions by over 2.7 million tonnes.
“Instead of progressing destructive, carbon-intensive road schemes, [the Department for Transport and National Highways] should focus on delivering better public transport in the north.”