Lancashire County Council backs "perfect" bid to reopen Preston's Old Tram bridge - but says the city council should make it
There are growing calls for Preston City Council to use a bid for government regeneration cash to fund the replacement or repair of the Old Tram Bridge in Avenham Park.
The historic cross-river connection - which dates back more than two centuries - was cut off two-and-a-half years ago after an inspection revealed that it was at risk of sudden collapse.
Lancashire County Council has now said that it will back a pitch to the government’s Levelling Up Fund to secure the finance needed to reinstate the facility - but only if the application is made by the city authority, which owns the dilapidated structure.
In a letter sent to former Preston city councillor Daniel Dewhurst - who earlier this month called on the two authorities to ensure that the “game-changing opportunity” provided by the fund was not missed - county council leader Phillippa Williamson said that County Hall would “happily support” Preston City Council if it chose to pursue that option.
She added that the county council itself would be “unlikely” to make such a bid as part of its own application to the fund - stating that it wanted to “extract the maximum benefit we can for Lancashire”. However, the authority's transport cabinet member, Charlie Edwards, said that it would be a "perfect" project for the city council's submission.
Under the rules of the fund, highways authorities like the county council are required to formally approve any transport-related bids made by district councils.
The chair of a group campaigning for the reopening of the link between Preston and South Ribble - which provided a route for people on foot, bike or even horseback - says he would now “implore” Preston to submit an application in the wake of County Hall ruling itself out of the bidding process.
The Lancashire Post can reveal that local government minister Luke Hall recently met Mr. Dewhurst in Preston, where the former Conservative councillor made the case for the bridge as a Levelling Up Fund project.
However, city council leader Matthew Brown told a town hall meeting just over a week ago that the possibility of being able to access the fund for infrastructure such as a health facility would “potentially be more important” than spending any money the city receives on the bridge.
As the Post revealed back in February, it is estimated that it would cost around £6m to replace the tram bridge, which highways bosses at the county council suggested was beyond repair when they took the decision to close it in 2019.
The Levelling Up Fund is a £4.8bn government pot to which local authorities can bid for infrastructure projects that help reduce economic inequalities between different parts of the UK.
District councils like Preston can apply for up to £20m to finance either one proposal or a package of linked schemes up to that value - with transport projects, town centre regeneration and cultural initiatives all being posited in the fund prospectus as example applications for the first round of bids.
County authorities can bid for one transport project worth up to £50m and, as the Post reported last month, Lancashire County Council has appealed to district authorities to swing behind a single - as-yet-unconfirmed - project that could benefit a broad area.
The initial bidding round closed earlier this summer, with a second expected to open in the autumn, when any new guidance on the types of projects being sought by the government will also be published.
Daniel Dewhurst said that that moment will represent “the best opportunity” Preston has to reopen "a crucial part of the travel network connecting the communities of Preston and South Ribble”.
“Preston residents were bitterly disappointed to learn that one round to bid for these funds had already passed with no plans put forward by either authority. They were understanding, however, that the pandemic had led to greater demands on council officers’ time.
“They won’t be so forgiving if, on the second time of asking, the funding to restore this important piece of infrastructure isn’t applied for - particularly now Lancashire County Council have responded positively with their support for the project and have provided clarity as to why Preston City Council needs to be the authority to make the application.
“Preston City Council cannot afford to let this opportunity pass by. If they don’t apply...there’s a real possibility the bridge will remain closed indefinitely, which would be detrimental to the interests of local residents and the wider Preston community,” Mr. Dewhurst warned.
He added that while Luke Hall was unable to comment on the likely success of any application because of his ministerial position, he was “confident the importance of this bridge will be on his mind should an application be made by Preston City Council in the second round.”
“I wanted him to understand how important this piece of infrastructure is to the local community and how in desperate need of repair or replacement it truly is.”
However, responding to news of the county council’s position, Preston leader Matthew Brown once again stressed that the bridge was far from the only game in town when it came to the city making a call on the government fund.
“The Levelling-up Fund is an exciting opportunity for Preston and many other towns and cities around the country. However, as this funding can be utilised for a range of projects it is important that we consider the different priorities for the city, including high street regeneration, local transport and health projects that could benefit from this funding.
“I am particularly passionate about ensuring any funding helps address structural inequalities in Preston as we recover from the pandemic.
“We understand the public interest in the Old Tram Bridge, but recognise that the necessary works require significant investment which will be considered against other priorities for the city when deciding how best to bid for this funding,” said Cllr Brown, who added that the authority was continuing to “work closely with partners to consider a suitable funding solution”.
Glenn Cookson, chair of the the Friends of Tram Bridge Group, said that the Levelling Up Fund now appeared to be the “only option” for getting the structure reopened.
While he said that the group still favoured repair of the bridge rather than replacement - something which they have always argued is possible - he explained that the “main aim” was re-establishing the connection, provided there was more than a nod to its heritage.
“The bridge has got a really rich history that we as a group are passionate about. If there was a rebuild of the bridge, it would definitely have to be sympathetic to that history and tell its story.
“The bridge was incredibly well-used - it enabled people taking a leisurely stroll to do a nice circular route of the park and the river, but it was also a popular commuter route - and many people have had to redirect their [journeys].
“We have definitely got some clarity now that the county council have said that they won't be going forward with a Levelling Up Fund bid. The Friends of Tram Bridge group would therefore implore Preston City Council to submit a bid for the bridge,” Mr. Cookson added.
County Cllr Edwards told the Post that the project ultimately selected for his authority’s Levelling Up Fund bid would have to “unlock a serious amount of growth in Lancashire in terms of access to new development and employment sites”.
“I don't think that a pedestrian bridge would be able to create the kind of growth that the government is looking for in the highways [authority] scheme.
“But I think it would be perfect for Preston’s bid, because it would be able to unlock opportunities for [the city]. We fully support Preston’s ambitions to sort the bridge out,” County Cllr Edwards added.
The Levelling Up Fund prospectus, which lays out the kind of projects it is designed to facilitate, states that the schemes likely to have the most impact are those that “help bring pride to a local area”.
The document adds: “Prosperity can be measured in many ways. However, for many people, the most powerful barometer of economic success is the positive change they see and the pride they feel in the places they call home.
“As the country recovers from the unprecedented economic impacts of Covid-19, it is more important than ever to prioritise investment that not only brings economic benefits, but also helps bind communities together.”
The fund is underpinned by guidelines that could make bidding decisions complex, particularly in two-tier council areas like Lancashire.
The number of bids that a district council can make depends on the number of MPs in their area - with one application permitted for every MP whose constituency “lies wholly within” a local authority boundary. Where an MP’s constituency crosses multiple council areas, one of those authorities should take responsibility as the lead bidder.
MPs are expected to back one bid that they regard as a priority, although the prospectus states that such support “is not a necessary condition for a successful bid”.
The original tram bridge structure was built in 1802 to carry goods across the Ribble between Preston and Walton Summit. It was largely rebuilt in 1935 after being badly damaged by high flood waters and a new deck was installed to replace the previous timber one in 1966.
It is the concrete beams put in place as part of that process that now lie at the heart of many of the bridge's problems - with two out of three them displaying cracks. Overall, the structure was found to have 200 defects in 2019.
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