Hopes that a heavily congested stretch of the M53 through Ellesmere Port will be upgraded are on ice, it has emerged.
An earlier announcement in 2014 said a six-mile stretch between junction 5 at the A41 in Eastham and junction 11 at the M56 Stoak interchange would become a smart motorway.
This would see the two-lane stretch of motorway increased to three lanes in each direction by opening up the hard shoulder. The work would also involve the installation of overhead gantry signs to display the variable speed limit.
Highways England, the government-owned company which has responsibility for England’s motorways and major A roads, said work was unlikely to start before 2018 and would take about two years to complete.
But an updated £15bn investment plan for the country’s roads, described as the biggest for a generation, ominously asterisks the M53 project as one to be ‘reconsidered’.
Highways England says it will look at scheduling the improvement ‘as part of future road investment planning’ from 2020 onwards.
A furious Ellesmere Port and Neston MP Justin Madders (Lab) was only informed by the London based Department for Transport following Commons transport business which did not refer to Ellesmere Port.
In a written statement the same day, however, transport secretary Chris Grayling said changes being made by Highways England to the programme did not involve any cancellation of schemes.
In a tweet, Mr Madders said he had received an email from the department about the pausing of the project 17 minutes after transport questions in the House of Commons had ended.
“Is it contempt for Parliament or the north?” he asked adding: “It is in fact both, a shoddy way for the Government to behave and another example of the Northern Powerhouse being all talk.”
In his letter to the MP, roads minister Jesse Norman referred to Highways England adjusting the programme and said: “As part of this, Highways England has taken the decision to pause the M53 junctions 5-11 smart motorway scheme in order to ensure that it continues to represent value for money.
“They now expect this scheme, or a variant of it, to be considered as part of the second roads investment strategy process.”
He added: “I very much appreciate you may have concerns about this and would be pleased to discuss the issue with you.
“Highways England will also be in touch with your office shortly to arrange a briefing with you on this issue if that would be of interest.”
The upgrade was originally announced by former Chancellor George Osborne in an autumn statement.
Then Tory parliamentary candidate for Ellesmere Port and Neston Katherine Fletcher welcomed the investment in the M53 and other projects in Cheshire.
She believed commuters would benefit and said: “This is the biggest, boldest investment in our roads for decades and it will bring a direct benefit for families in Ellesmere Port and Neston.
“Many local people use the M53 every day. By making it a smart motorway, we can ease congestion and boost transport in our area.”
Smart motorways are said to increase traffic capacity by employing variable speed limits and hard shoulder running at busy times.
Benefits include smoother traffic flows, more reliable journey times, fewer road traffic collisions and reduced noise and harmful vehicle emissions it is claimed.
The government said funding was being provided ‘to upgrade the M53 to a smart motorway which will help to ease journeys into Birkenhead and support new housing and office space at the Wirral Waters development’.
Now Highways England has said it has updated the road improvement programme to reduce the impact of road works on motorists and minimise congestion while works take place.
Jim O’Sullivan, Highways England chief executive, said: “Our update is a sensible and responsible way to deliver major national investment in road infrastructure. It will keep our roads moving, deliver a lasting legacy for the country and ensure best value for money for the taxpayer.”