THE MOST senior civil servant in the country has expressed his concern at delays to a decision on Southampton’s £150m port upgrade.

Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood said the proposed new investment, which will safeguard 2,000 jobs, was “welcome” and would be vital to the economy.

In his role at the head of the civil service, Sir Jeremy is said to be the most powerful unelected man in Britain.

His comments came as frustration grew over the time being taken by the Marine Management Organisation to reach a verdict on the £150m project.

The quango had been expected to make an announcement last week.

But a spokesman said: “We are still in the process of determining the application and are working very closely with the applicant. We expect to make a decision in the near future.”

Port owner ABP wants to combine the existing berths 201 and 202 as an increase in the length of container ships has meant the current deepsea berths, 204 to 207, can no longer handle four large vessels at once.

The expansion has been tied up in red tape, including an objection from the owners of rival port Felixstowe and claims of mistakes by the officials in charge of the planning process.

A verdict is needed as soon as possible because the work can only begin in a certain time window for environmental reasons. The major works must be carried out between September and March to avoid disturbing migratory Atlantic salmon.

The slow rate of progress was criticised by Southampton Itchen MP John Denham, pictured left.

He said: “I’m hugely frustrated.

There weren’t any significant objections, and no new issues were raised.

It’s over a month since the consultation ended – they should have made a decision by now."

Responding to a letter sent by Mr Denham, Sir Jeremy wrote: “Southampton and other container ports make a vital contribution to the UK economy. It is a welcome sign of confidence that ABP are willing to invest on the scale necessary to allow Southampton to handle the latest container vessels.

“I share your concerns that this significant investment has been delayed for so long, initially because of errors by those considering the necessary marine consents and later as the result of a judicial review sought by another port operator.”

Sir Jeremy said the MMO was making “every effort” to reach a swift decision but said neither ministers or senior officials could interfere in the process.