MINISTERS who have driven the final nail into the coffin of the £1.2billion A14 improvement scheme through Huntingdonshire were accused by business leaders this week of ‘lunacy’.

Transport ministers have now withdrawn the draft orders needed for last summer's aborted public inquiry to start, before the scheme was shelved in October, and have offered to pay back the money wasted by objectors on preparing for the inquiry.

But the move was condemned by long-standing A14 campaigner and business leader John Bridge after another accident on the congested road brought gridlock to Huntingdon in Monday's morning peak.

Ministers claim to be looking for a cheaper way of tackling the congestion than the Highways Agency's proposals that were abandoned by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on October 20 last year, but withdrawal of the draft orders means the HA scheme cannot now be amended, and transport planners are back to square one.

Mr Bridge, who is chief executive of Cambridgeshire Chambers of Commerce, spoke yesterday (Tuesday) of "total gridlock in Huntingdon and surrounding areas again today as yet another incident on A14 creates unacceptable chaos, affecting struggling businesses and thousands of people".

He railed: "We have already waited far too long for the implementation of a real solution to the unacceptable congestion and negative economic impact of the A14.

"It is lunacy therefore that the Department for Transport has decided to withdraw the draft orders that had previously been published in relation to the A14 improvement scheme and condemn the area to years of intolerable misery.

He called upon local MPs and council leaders to campaign actively to persuade ministers to change their minds.

"Where are our Members of Parliament and local authority leaders who are on record as saying the upgrading of the A14 is a top priority for them and critical to our continuing economic success?" he asked.

"They have allowed the Government to renege on its commitment to the A14 on the basis of its not being affordable. However, studies have shown there would have been a positive economic return on the proposed investment over two years as well as its being greater than high speed rail.

"We would like to know what action our elected members are going to take, as someone is going to have to take the responsibility and accountability for the consequences of this ludicrous situation."

Mr Bridge said publication of draft orders for the scheme had been the culmination of many years work and significant cost to the taxpayer.

"We've had studies to identify the need for the scheme, followed by the design process, an investigation of alternative routes, a comprehensive public consultation and environmental impact assessments. All of that, and its associated costs, just to publish the draft orders that the Government has now relinquished.

"By removing the statutory protection of the A14 in the region's development plan, the Department for Transport is just throwing away over £37million that has already been spent.

"It puts us absolutely back to square one - that's not just unacceptable for the businesses and individuals that are affected by the regular problems along the route, it's also unacceptable for taxpayers. It's a step backwards and an absolute waste - it's truly unbelievable.

"The solution being implemented instead is yet more studies through an A14 Task Force, which is nothing other than window dressing with no real substance and proposals to deal with the effect rather than the cause. What is so desperately needed is action to overcome the real cause of the problem, not any more discussions and words."

The DfT said consideration would now be given to reimbursing legal and other professional fees and reasonable out-of-pocket expenses incurred by objectors in preparing their cases for the public inquiry that was due to start a year ago but was put on hold while the Government considered its spending priorities.

A Highways Agency spokesman said: ""The costs associated with scheme close down are unavoidable. We have sought to minimise spend as far as possible since it became clear that the scheme was unaffordable in its former £1.2bn form. The work on it has generated a considerable amount of information which will help inform the further studies which are to take place."

The agency could not yet identify how much compensation to objectors would amount to, though Cambridgeshire County Council estimates that it spent nearly £50,000 on legal and professional fees in advance of the inquiry.

But the agency spokesman added: "We are expecting to spend around £550,000 in closing down the contract. This includes about £90,000 to return the building hired and converted for use as the public inquiry venue, plus associated workrooms, back to its original fully open plan layout, as required by the landlord, and a further £90,000 in bringing survey work to a conclusion, principally from writing up the results of archaeological investigations to date and removing groundwater monitoring equipment from landowners' fields."