A NEW £11.4m road, improving links between the A1(M) and the A19, was officially opened today by Transport Minister Paul Clark.

The A688 Wheatley Hill to Bowburn project is seen as a means of helping to revitalise the economy of County Durham as well as taking heavy goods traffic away from neighbouring communities.

Cutting a ribbon across the new 2.3km single carriageway stretch, the Minister was joined at the ceremony by children from Bowburn Junior School.

The Department of Transport provided £10.5m towards the scheme, which has also seen improvements being carried out to an existing 1.7km stretch of existing roadway.

Work started on the scheme in 2007 and includes new roundabouts at Coxhoe, Cassop Moor and Byers Garth as well as two new bridges.

The new road includes a pedestrian footway and cycle track and with the conservation of wildlife high on the agenda there is also a special underpass for badgers.

The Minister said the Government was fully committed to enabling improvements to local transport and said the completion of the project would bring important benefits to communities in and around Durham.

The vital route, he said would remove a substantial amount of heavy goods traffic from unsuitable local roads "improving safety and the environment in residential areas such as Bowburn and Coxhoe.''

The scheme has, however, been on the drawing board for more than a decade and part of the original proposal included a direct link to the Tursdale rail terminal, which was subsequently shelved.

But speaking after the opening ceremony the Minister said that although the connection to the rail terminal had not gone ahead it had not been ruled out for the future.