NORTH-EAST business leaders have called on the government to re-think its decision to axe parts of the A1 upgrade, arguing that the scheme is vital to the region's future economic growth.

In a letter to Transport Minister Philip Hammond, the North East Chamber of Commerce (NECC) claimed that investment in transport links must be improved if the region is to recover.

The letter was sent following a meeting of the NECC Council, which is made up of more than 30 senior business leaders, where members criticised the cancellation of the A1 Leeming to Barton upgrade.

The work would have allowed motorists to drive from Newcastle to the M25 along an unbroken stretch of motorway.

The Department for Transport has defended the decision and said it had to make tough choices about the national road network.

James Ramsbotham (CORR), NECC chief executive, said: "The Government's backtrack on its commitment to improve a vital artery linking the region to the rest of the UK means that, for the foreseeable future, the North-East will remain the only English region not connected to the strategic motorway network.

"It will also be one of the few regions in the UK not seeing any major upgrades to its strategic road network before 2015."

The NECC letter to Mr Hammond noted that the per capita investment in North-East transport infrastructure is below the national average, and that congestion costs the North-East economy more than any other English region.

It added: "How does the Government expect the North-East's ageing roads to keep pace with demand from users, given the low level of investment set aside for the region's roads moving forward? "The case for widespread cuts to expenditure on North East roads has yet to be explained."

In a statement, a Department for Transport spokeswoman said: "We had to make tough choices about investment priorities for the strategic road network.

"Projects are still going ahead in the North-East; for example the 350m refurbishment of the Tyne and Wear Metro will continue and the Sunderland Strategic Corridor and the Morpeth Northern Bypass are still in the running to receive their share of over 600m.

"We are determined to ensure the impacts of savings are spread fairly across the country. But, with limited funds available, we have not been able to continue every scheme in every region."