FURTHER DELAY AS A1 FACES GRIDLOCK.
ANGRY business chiefs turned on the Government yesterday after plans to upgrade the gridlocked A1 through the North-East suffered a massive delay.
Ministers had promised to deliver their long-awaited proposals for improving Tyneside's Western bypass by this summer.
But a memo from Roads Minister Stephen Ladyman sparked fury by revealing the plans will not go before ministers until winter next year - more than 18 months after the original deadline.
The news comes as a new flexible working campaign was launched in the North-East to help reduce the number of cars on the roads during the rushhour. Work Wise, backed by The Journal aims to make changes to people's working day, including staggered start and finish times, flexible hours and encouraging people to work from home.
After months of delays, Mr Ladyman told Blaydon MP Dave Anderson the Highways Agency has now decided to tie the A1 report to a new transport strategy being drawn up by North-East council leaders.
As Mr Anderson demanded a specific timetable, last night the North-East Chamber of Commerce said the fresh delay was "inexcusable", while civic leaders said the region has been placed "at the back of the queue once again".
Any widening of the bypass - yesterday crammed with Christmas traffic - will now be considered alongside the TIF (Transport Innovation Fund) strategy aimed at researching methods to reduce traffic, including road pricing.
Through the TIF scheme the Tyne and Wear authorities have been offered a share of pounds 2.5bn to develop different strategies to reduce congestion.
But it also means any proposals will only be submitted to ministers in the New Year, while any firm strategies would be developed by the end of 2007 or early 2008.
In his letter to Mr Anderson, Mr Ladyman said: "The Highways Agency's work on the A1 is closely linked to this strategy, and they are working with the local authorities to develop an integrated package of proposals that will provide lasting benefit to the A1 and the local transport network."
Chamber of Commerce spokesman Mike Parker said: "We find this news very disappointing, particularly as a commitment was given by the Highways Agency back in January that proposals to improve the Western bypass would be unveiled in the summer.
"It is inexcusable that we are now going to have to wait 18 months to two years for any firm proposals."
Mr Parker added that the decision to link any improvements with a TIF strategy was a clear indication it would be conditional on the introduction of road charges.
He said: "The main drive behind TIFs is road pricing. Clearly this is the way the Government is going, but structural improvements on the A1 are about 30 years overdue.
"The TIF could feed into and even improve and enhance any upgrade, but there are already clear solutions for the A1."
A spokesman for the Department for Transport yesterday said: "Any improvement to the A1 will basically go hand in hand with the TIF strategy, so the Highways Agency will go back before ministers in the New Year with any proposals and any firm proposals should be put together by next winter."
Securing upgrades to the Western bypass is one of the aims of the Go For Jobs Campaign, run by the North-East Chamber of Commerce and The Journal, which has highlighted how congestion is strangling the region's economy.
Yesterday, senior Newcastle councillor Greg Stone said the delay was a sign of the North-East being put "at the back of the queue once again". He added: "It's no surprise the Government are dragging their feet again about improving roads in the North-East.
"The Government is aware that is an issue that needs to be addressed urgently yet they show no signs of answering it."
Faced with this further delay, Blaydon MP Dave Anderson yesterday said he would be demanding a more accurate time frame.
He said: "If it's the case that it will be next winter before there are any plans, then why tell us what they told us in January?"
The last serious bid for an upgrade came with a study in 2002, which recommended spending pounds 271m to widen the bypass to three lanes, while five months ago Mr Ladyman said he wanted the matter dealt with "as quickly as we can".
Staying home - the new way to work? Pages 8&9
TRAFFIC BUILD-UP: The upgrade of the A1 Western Bypass has been further delayed.