The city council has offered a glimmer of hope to those who want to see the 220-year-old crossing restored instead of being demolished.
It had been feared the cost of preserving the decaying structure would be out of reach while other transport projects, like a new rail station for Cottam, are higher up the priority list.
But now the authority has said the bridge will be one of the schemes it looks at under the new Levelling Up Fund, announced in the Government’s Spending Review in March.
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Preston is entitled to bid for a £20m slice of the £4.8bn fund to spend on local infrastructure projects. The city is drawing up a list of schemes it would like to tackle - and the Old Tram Bridge is one of those being looked at.
“Since its closure for safety reasons, we have worked with partners to identify appropriate funding opportunities to resolve the future of the well-loved Old Tram Bridge,” said Coun Robert Boswell, cabinet member for environment and community safety.
“The Levelling-up Fund may provide this opportunity as it allows local authorities to bid for significant funding to invest in local infrastructure that will improve everyday life.
“As the fund will support city centre and high street regeneration, local transport projects, and cultural and heritage assets, it is important that we prioritise the projects for which any potential bid is made to a future funding round.
“Given the local interest in the Old Tram Bridge and the significant investment required to undertake works, this project will be considered alongside the other competing priorities for the city.
“However, in the meantime the bridge must remain closed for the safety and protection of the public.”
While Preston Council owns the bridge, LCC have been responsible for its upkeep and its engineers shut the bridge to cyclists and pedestrians in February 2019 after more than 200 faults were discovered during a safety inspection.
Some of the most serious defects involved concrete beams which were only installed in the 1960s.
County Hall concluded that the bridge had deteriorated so much since its last inspection in 2012 that it was “beyond repair” and could collapse at any time.
Since the closure at least two diagonal wooden struts have become detached and fallen into the water.
Preston Council says the decision between refurbishing the historic bridge or replacing it with a brand new crossing will depend on the level of funding available and the cost of repairing it.
Former Tory city councillor Daniel Dewhurst, who is backing a campaign to save the old bridge, said the Levelling Up Fund presents the city with a “game-changing opportunity” to repair and re-open it. And he urged both councils to seize that opportunity.
“It’s been two years since the Old Tram Bridge was closed and, in that time, we have seen no concrete plans by either Lancashire County Council or Preston City Council to reopen it, either because of a shortfall in funding, or because we have lost out on securing vital funds,” he said.
“The Old Tram Bridge previously formed part of Lancashire County Council’s Transforming Cities Fund (TCF), and whilst Preston is benefiting in-part from this significant investment, proposals to repair the bridge under this scheme were unsuccessful. Since then, both authorities have warned that unless external funding is found, the bridge will remain closed, falling into greater disrepair.
“That’s why the Levelling-Up Fund presents a game-changing opportunity to finally reopen this piece of infrastructure, which is an important part of the active travel network connecting the communities of Preston and South Ribble.
“Residents will be disappointed to learn that one round to bid for these funds has already passed with no plan put forward by either authority. But Preston could still be awarded up to £20m in the second round to invest in projects such as the Old Tram Bridge that could in turn see £7m of investment in Avenham.
“Both authorities need to consider the most strategic use of these funds and evaluate local taxpayers’ priorities in line with the great number of regenerative benefits reopening the Old Tram Bridge could bring to the area.
“If neither authority takes the initiative, there’s a real possibility the bridge will remain closed indefinitely, which would be detrimental to the interests of local resident and the wider Preston community.”
Mr Dewhurst added: “Given the deprivations suffered by so many across the city, it may seem churlish to bang the drum for the preservation of a bridge. But it’s a matter of restoring civic pride as much as it is about unblocking one of the main arteries into the city centre.
“The Old Tram Bridge boarded up is an eyesore - not just to local residents who have witnessed its demise, but to visitors of Avenham Park who are left with a lasting-impression of our city.
“At a time when we’re being told to transition to more environmentally friendly means of travel, it also seems clear if not painstakingly obvious that reopening this piece of infrastructure, which connects both Preston and South Ribble across the river, ought to be a priority.
“Neither council can afford to wait until the bridge falls into a worse state. The Levelling-Up Fund is the best opportunity Preston has to reopen this piece of infrastructure.”
The bridge has its own campaign group, set up to push for the preservation of an architectural treasure.
“The bridge is repairable - and at a far smaller cost than building a new one, ” said Michael Nye, founder of the Friends of the Old Tramroad Bridge. “This is a unique structure in the whole of the UK, there isn’t another like it.
“We want to work with both councils. But we want the councils to listen to us and drop their ‘we know best’ attitude. Demolition is not the only answer.”
LCC engineers say that while the old timber pieces which have fallen off are part of the original wooden bridge, they are not load-bearing and there was in no increased risk of collapse.
“These were replicated when the timber deck was replaced with concrete in the 1960s,” said a spokesman.
“While their poor condition is a potential risk to passers-by, and one of the reasons that we have had to close the path beneath the bridge for safety, they no longer perform a structural role in supporting the bridge.
"We are continuing to work with Preston City Council, which owns the bridge, to manage its closure and look at options for the future of the bridge, including sourcing external funding for a new bridge.”