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Transport secretary delays DCO decision on £1.3bn A66 upgrade by four months

Transport secretary Mark Harper has pushed back the decision on granting a development consent order (DCO) for the £1.3bn A66 Northern Trans-Pennine by four months.

The deadline for deciding whether to give National Highways’ major Northern road scheme the green light was yesterday, 7 November, but the decision did not materialise. An update has now been provided by transport minister Huw Merriman to say that the deadline has been extended to 7 March 2024.

Merriman’s written statement to Parliament says the delay 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”.

It continues: “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 decision to set a new deadline is without prejudice to the decision on whether to give development consent for the above application.”

A National Highways spokesperson said: “We remain confident in our proposals and we stand ready to deliver these improvements, subject to receiving a positive decision on the DCO and authorisation to proceed to construction.”

A Transport for the North spokesperson said: “We are disappointed to hear of a delay to the decision on upgrading the A66. But the important thing is to get the right answer, which we strongly believe is upgrading this key route to improve connections and experience for the people that use it.

“Removing the bottlenecks along this key east-west corridor will make the road safer and more reliable for travellers and help freight get across the Pennines by linking ports on both coasts and providing onward connectivity to Scotland.

“It’s not only a hugely important route between the Lake District, North Yorkshire and the Tees Valley – and the dozens of communities in between – it also helps connect Scotland to our towns and cities.

“We look forward to what we hope will be the go-ahead for this very important piece of national infrastructure.”

By law, the secretary of state is supposed to make a decision on DCOs within three months of receiving the Examining Authority’s report, but extending deadlines for road schemes has become common practice with transport secretaries.

The decision on National Highways’ DCO application for its upgrade of the A1 has been deferred four times, bringing the wait to over two and a half years. This was a scheme originally put before Harper’s predecessor-but-one as transport secretary, Grant Shapps, in July 2021.

Shapps had a habit of delaying DCO decisions on road schemes. He delayed the decision on M25 junction 28 upgrade three times before finally approving it 21 months after receiving the examining authority’s report. Decision on DCO applications for the M56 to M6 link road, A303 Sparkford upgrade, Amesbury dual carriageways and the A63 improvement scheme were also all delayed before approval.

Responding to the A66 decision delay, Transport Action Network roads and climate campaigner Rebecca Lush 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 2.7Mt. Project Speed has finally hit the buffers of reality.

“This is the 18th time in just four years that the Secretary of State has delayed a decision on large road schemes. Rather than blaming ‘planning’ or objectors for delays, it is time the DfT and National Highways took responsibility for their own actions. Instead of progressing destructive, carbon-intensive road schemes they should focus on delivering better public transport in the north.

“The National Audit Office this week gave the Department for Transport the lowest possible rating for delivering on its legal climate, air quality and biodiversity targets. Unless the DfT reconsiders outdated road schemes such as the A66, the £10bn Lower Thames Crossing and the A303 Stonehenge through the World Heritage Site, it is going to continue to fail.”

Last summer, National Highways’ chief executive Nick Harris told NCE that he was wary of the effect on the road operator’s work pipeline caused by all these delays.

The A66 upgrade will see 29km of single-lane sections of the 80km stretch between the M6 and A1 made into a dual carriageway, while key junctions will be improved.

The £1.3bn scheme is to be carried out by Balfour Beatty, Keltbray and Kier, with Costain having been removed from the project following “a change in contracting strategy”. The scheme is working to Project Speed principles in order to deliver it in five years rather than an initially estimated 10 years.

Balfour Beatty has recently released contract opportunities for sub-contractors to take on more than £300M of key words for the scheme, including earthworks, pavements and steelworks.

According to National Highways, the A66 Northern Trans-Pennine project is one of “the most critical road upgrades in the north of England” and once complete it will connect communities and improve transport connections with an aim to open in 2029.

It is a vital artery in east-west routing in the North, with a quarter of the traffic being freight – more than double the national average. It is also a dangerous road, with a high rate of serious accidents.



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