The historic crossing has been the focus of a long-running campaign calling for its restoration after the structure closed three years ago when an inspection found that it was at risk of sudden collapse.
A near 3,000-signature petition last month pushed for the tram bridge to be included in Preston’s forthcoming bid to the government’s Levelling Up Fund - and the city council has now revealed that it is set to be amongst a wishlist of half a dozen schemes for which the authority will be seeking £20m from the nationwide cash pot this summer.
As well as a new bridge - estimated to cost in the region of £6m-£7m - the package of projects will aim to protect and upgrade some of the city’s major parks and create so-called “active travel” infrastructure to promote walking and cycling.
As the most eye-catching of the plans, the replacement bridge ticks both of those boxes - being a much-loved landmark within Avenham Park and providing a pedestrian and cycle link to the south of the Ribble for commuting and leisure purposes.
According to a document to be presented to cabinet members for their approval later this month, the bid will also feature schemes focused upon delivering sports facilities at Ashton Park and heritage, event and visitor attractions at Moor Park.
Infrastructure improvements are planned for Avenham Park, while sport, community use and access is proposed to be enhanced at Waverley Park. Access arrangements would also be upgraded as part of the re-opening of the Interpretation Centre in Grange Park.
Additionally, bid will set out plans to create cycling corridors, running from east to west and north to south across the city. The aim of the schemes is to establish good connections to bus and train services, employment sites and residential areas for those who travel on two wheels - and to tempt more people to do so.
Improved cycling links to the replacement tram bridge are proposed, along with associated public space upgrades on Friargate between Ringway and Cheapside.
If successful, the bid money would also be used to create three “mobility hubs” at the city’s railway and bus stations and Avenham car park . Collectively, they would be designed to promote and support active travel and use of electric cars.
There would also be a specific project to improve bus journeys between Preston and the new National Cyber Force campus which will be built in Samlesbury.
While a new cross-river connection would clearly be just one part of a much wider proposition for the government to consider, it is, for the bridge’s backers, one that they were delighted to see included.
However, Glenn Cookson, chair of The Friends of the Old Tramroad Bridge, says that now the city council has been convinced of the worth of the project, the focus must shift to trying to persuade the government to hand over the cash to make the replacement bridge a reality.
“This is just the start of it really - we can't sit on our laurels. It’s been a long journey to get here, but the most significant part is still to come.
“We now need to ensure that central government understands the importance of the bridge to local people.
“I’m sure that the petition influenced the council’s decision and we are really thankful that they took the bridge on board [as a levelling up project]. We would now really like to work with them to get the best result,” Glenn said.
He told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that the friends group had started work on a short film to demonstrate the special connections that users of the bridge have with the structure.
They have already been told some poignant tales, but are keen to uncover many more - and are appealing to anybody with a link to the location to get in touch [email: [email protected]].
The original structure was built exactly 220 years ago 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.
City council leader Matthew Brown says that the authority had “always wanted” to find the finance to ensure that a piece of Preston history was not left to disintegrate.
However, he reiterated previous statements he has made in the council chamber suggesting that the bridge may not have been his first choice of levelling up project.
“[Because of] what we went through during the pandemic, we did want to explore other options - especially around health and also, potentially, housing.
“We did want to resolve [the bridge] - but it's just when you’ve got a shrinking amount of money that the government gives you to do things, you've got to prioritise what you think is important.
“I don't apologise for taking time to get to a position where we can get absolutely the best for our community - because it needs some thought.
“This is the best bid within the circumstances that we have, because they don't give you much time to deliver these schemes,” Cllr Brown said.
Projects supported by the Levelling Up Fund have to be completed by March 2025 and while the Labour leader says that the tight timescale has shaped the bid that the council will put forward, he believes that it is nevertheless one that ties in with Preston’s priorities.
“We know the health benefits that parks have and our parks are very beautiful in Preston.
“The bid also fits closely with the environmental agenda that we do support very strongly. We’re going to look at things like cycle hire schemes, because to move towards net zero we have got to do things that are substantial on the ground.
“There’s also going to be some work [to connect the city to] the new cyber security site in Samlesbury, because obviously we want Prestonians to be able to get to that in a much easier way,” Cllr Brown added.
The Levelling Up Fund is being dished out as part of a competitive bidding process - meaning that there is no guarantee that any money at all from the pot will make its way to the city. Although district councils like Preston are entitled to apply for up £20m from the fund, it is also possible that a smaller share would be allocated once the bids have been judged.
Applications will be assessed on the basis of whether they demonstrate a “strategic fit” with the economic and community priorities of the local area and can show “public value to society”. Their deliverability within the next three years is also a key criteria.
Although not a requirement for a successful bid, it is expected that MPs will back a single bid which they see as a priority if their constituency includes more than one local authority area.
Preston’s planned pitch was developed by a task group set up for the purpose, which engaged with potential partners and sponsors who were regarded as being well placed to suggest suitable projects.
These included Lancashire County Council - which put forward the tram bridge restoration and cycling corridors - and the city council’s own parks department, which came up with the blueprint for upgrading the facilities at the four green spaces that will now form part of the bid.
The University of Central Lancashire and the NHS in the county both confirmed an interest in exploring the possibility of establishing a community health and wellbeing hub in the city centre, of the kind backed by Cllr Brown.
While they concluded that the three-year timeframe for delivery precluded them from trying to pursue that ambition via the Levelling Up Fund, it has been proposed that a formal project team is set up to further the initial discussions sparked by the bid engagement process.
Preston has been given priority 1 status under the Levelling Up Fund, which identifies the city as one of the areas of greatest need - although that is no guarantee of a successful pitch.
After deciding not to apply during a first round window for applications last year, Preston City Council was awarded £125,000 in “capacity funding” from the government in order to help it draw up a bid for round two, which has just opened and for which the deadline for submissions is 6th July.
A three-stage assessment process will then follow, with councils learning after stage one whether their proposals have cleared a basic ‘pass or fail’ hurdle and will be considered for shortlisting.
However, a report to be presented to cabinet members notes that the tight timescale for bringing a successful bid to fruition means that the council will have to commit to commissioning delivery and design work even before it has learned whether it has progressed to the latter stages of the assessment.
Such work will be undertaken at the council’s own risk, but it is proposed to cap expenditure on it to ensure that it does not exceed the £125,000 in capacity funding.
Preston’s proposed package of projects for its bid will be probed by the town hall’s cross-party overview and scrutiny committee on Thursday, before being sent to cabinet for a decision on 20th April.
Responsibility for the contents of the final submission - to be drawn up over the next three months - will then be delegated to the authority’s chief executive and director of development and housing, in conjunction with the council leader and cabinet member for planning and regulation.
‘PUBLIC OPINION PLAYED A PART’
A former city councillor who set up the petition calling on the authority to incorporate a repaired or renewed tram bridge into its Levelling Up Fund bid says that the decision to do so “vindicates those who have consistently and repeatedly put [that] argument over the last 12 months”.
Daniel Dewhurst last week accused the council of deliberately trying to silence the voices of the document’s 2,827 signatories after it said that it could only verify 946 of them as having a direct connection to Preston. That meant that a 1,350-person threshold for a full council debate on a petition issue had not been met.
The authority said that it would nevertheless consider the contents of the petition when developing its Levelling Up Fund bid.
Responding to the news that the project had made the cut, Mr. Dewhurst said: “Whilst there are a number of hurdles and formalities the council will be required to overcome - and this announcement is by no means a done deal - it is a significant first step forward.
“The main thrust of the council’s efforts, and that of our Member of Parliament, must now focus solely on ensuring the case presented to the government is compelling and that Preston receives the full £20m of investment it intends to bid for.
“I’m grateful to those residents who lent their support to this campaign, the Friends of the Old Tramroad Bridge campaign group, and the 3,000 people who signed the petition to use this fund to reopen the bridge.
“The weight of public opinion has no doubt had a significant impact in ensuring the council applied for this funding and it demonstrates [that] the collective effort of residents is significant in influencing the decision making process,” said Mr. Dewhurst, who previously criticised the council for not bidding in round one of the fund.
Council leader Matthew Brown said that while the authority had “taken quite a bit of heat” for that decision, it had subsequently received the £125,000 in capacity funding to develop a better bid by biding its time.
He also noted that it gave the authority an opportunity to learn from the many unsuccessful bids submitted by other local authorities during round one, under which £1.7bn from the total £4.8bn pot was handed out by the government.