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'Abolish Highways Agency', leading Lib Dem says

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The Liberal Democrats’ local government leader has called for the Highways Agency to be dismantled.

Gerald Vernon-Jackson told a Centre for Cities fringe meeting at his party annual conference in Brighton that the government should “get rid of the Highways Agency and just leave it to run the motorways”.

He said the Department for Transport agency – which oversees motorways and trunk roads - was “not interested in growth, and is just obsessed by traffic figures”.

Cllr Vernon-Jackson, who leads Portsmouth City Council, said his authority had the only council-owned stretch of motorway in the country because the agency had refused to build a spur into the city.

“They can prevent schemes that would drive economic growth by refusing to build roads or to allow new roads to link to trunk roads unless these meet their traffic forecasts, and don’t see economic growth as their job,” he said.

“It should just do the motorways. The rest of the trunk road network should be handed over to councils.”

Cllr Vernon-Jackson claimed wide cross-party support for this view among councillors, and said local government was in general being obstructed by quangos.

He urged the government to “get the Environment Agency off our backs”, and added: “Don’t get me started on the Planning Inspectorate.”

The meeting on paths to economic growth also heard from former Newcastle City Council leader Lord Shipley, deputy chair of the regional growth fund, who said the recent criticism of it by the public accounts committee was misplaced.

“It is too early to draw conclusions on the first rounds of the fund,” he said. “For the third round there has been strong interest, with 414 applications for £2.76bn worth of projects, though there is only £1bn available.”

At the meeting, Cllr Vernon-Jackson also called for an end to “crude regionalism” in the way the government views the economy.

“Portsmouth cannot bid to attract government because it is in the south-east and considered wealthy, when in fact it has areas of high deprivation,” he said.

“But those well known deprived places Cheltenham and Harrogate can bid for them because they are considered to be in poor regions.”

However, Lord Shipley told the meeting that the UK economy was “too focused on the south-east”.

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