New-look Old Tram Bridge between Preston and Penwortham will be "basic" as debate rages over design
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That was the message from a senior Preston city councillor who says that financial and delivery date constraints mean that there is little prospect of taking the time to peruse different possibilities in order to come up with one that meets with widespread public approval.
David Borrow, cabinet member for planning and regulation at the town hall, told the Post that the authority would have to get on with the job and work with bridge experts at Lancashire County Council.
The money for the long-awaited new bridge was secured last month via the government’s Levelling Up Fund – but, like most of the projects being supported by that national pot, the cash came with with a requirement to deliver the new cross-river connection between Avenham Park and Penwortham by March 2025.
Coupled with the fact that the new bridge is now almost certain to have a far higher cost than the £6m price tag estimated in 2021 – and that the £20m overall levelling up allocation for Preston also has to fund a raft of other schemes – and it seems likely that locals should be prepared to welcome a structure that is functional rather than fancy.
“We’ve got funding for a basic bridge and the county council have got a basic bridge [in their portfolio] – so I’m afraid there are not going to be any design competitions for this,” said Cllr Borrow, alluding to the global search for an architect to draw up the blueprint for the new mosque which was this week given the go-ahead in Broughton.
“There just isn’t a lot of time for faffing about – we want to get the bridge built. Plus, the county council is the bridge master – [the city council] has not got the skills to build it, so we’re dependent to a great extent on their ability to deliver within the timescale and the cost,” Cllr Borrow explained.
Even if time and money were no object, it is unlikely that any one bridge design would satisfy all those who might have an opinion about it.
What type of bridge would people like to see?
The Friends of Tram Bridge group – which has campaigned for the repair or replacement of the link since its sudden closure over safety fears in 2019 – contains every shade of opinion on possible designs.
Glenn Cookson, the organisation’s chair, said after the levelling up announcement that “it would be great if the new design was sympathetic to the iconic and unique design that we have today”.
The original 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 in 1966, a new deck was installed to replace the previous timber one.
The Old Tram Bridge is now the only “trestle and spar” type example in the country and friends group founder Michael Nye has previously explained to the Post that some original parts of the structure have remained in place with each revamp.
Glenn added: “The bridge is over 200 years old and in that time has already been rebuilt – so it’s part of the bridge’s history that it needs to be rebuilt and transformed. And the fact that it is going to be reopened is just a win all round.”
However, group member and city resident Richard McGowan – who believes he must have been one of the last people to cross the bridge on the day of its closure four years ago – would like to see a fresh-looking replacement in the “cable stay” style, characterised by having one or more towers from which cables support the bridge deck.
“I just think it’s time to start looking forwards rather than backwards,” he said.
“There are a lot of old historic bridges [in this area] and I think building something more modern might look better and be more practical in terms of cost.”
Steve Connolley, who was a regular user of the bridge when he lived in Walton-le-Dale before moving to Blackpool, says he would prefer “a lower-level bridge, a platform-type structure that doesn’t have anything jutting into the sky”.
However, he cautioned against knee-jerk opposition to anything that looked markedly different to the current bridge.
“If you [make] any sort of architectural intrusion, there will be people saying they don’t like it and don’t want it – but once it’s there, then decades down the line, others would be saying that you couldn’t remove it because it’s a historical landmark.
“There are some fantastic bridges in Lancashire – over towards Clitheroe, there is a railway aqueduct, which is red-brick and spans the valley.
“But I can just imagine when that was built there would have been those who said: ‘The railways are cutting through the countryside and destroying the landscape.’ However, these things then become part and parcel of that landscape.
“And if a suspension-type bridge with a higher level column in the middle might be the best option because of the issue of debris building up underneath it [in the river channel], then fair enough.
“At the moment, anything is better than nothing, because it’s a good carbon-neutral way of getting in and out of the city,” Steve added.
Lisa Whistlecroft – another Preston expat with fond memories of the bridge as a child – has retained such an attachment to it that she would like its replacement to be a replica.
“If they are going to keep the Old Tram Road as a cycleway and bridleway all the way up to Walton Hill, then it just seems like it would make more sense to keep the bridge as a piece of architectural heritage – rather than have a heritage tram road and park and then a brand new bridge,” said Lisa, who admitted that her preference ran contrary to her otherwise forward-thinking outlook on life.
“I’d usually be keen that we were encouraging upcoming – and definitely Preston-based – architects to design something that would work for the next couple of centuries, but I just have a particular personal fondness for that old bridge.
“Either way, it’s got to generate work for local people and be something that brings money back into the local community – but let’s not have a ‘clone town’ bridge that looks just like so many others elsewhere.
“Of course, the Old Tram Bridge itself has changed over time anyway. I have a memory from when I was very small that it had wooden decking. If you’re going to make it accessible for toddlers and people with mobility scooters, then wooden decking now would be ridiculous.
“And it will need better sides than it had in my day – because there probably wasn’t a lot stopping me falling in as a child,” laughed Lisa, who now lives in Lancaster and always ensures that she is sitting on the correct side of the train when travelling through Preston so that she can look out at the bridge that still holds such a special place in her heart.
Last year, a competition to design a new bridge for the location – staged before the project had been confirmed as forming part of Preston’s Levelling Up Fund bid – drew entries from all ages, including children, design students and grandparents.
As well as the Old Tram Bridge replacement, the £20m grant will be used to fund improvements elsewhere in Avenham Park – as well as at Ashton Park, Moor Park and Waverley Park – along with the creation of cycling corridors across the city and other schemes designed to increase cycling and walking.
A spokesperson for Preston City Council reassured residents that they would be kept up-to-date with progress on the “next important steps” in bringing the authority’s levelling up projects to life.
“The council will be moving forward at pace with the levelling up plans and we are waiting to receive grant permission from the government.
“There will be a report to the council this month to [enable acceptance of] the £20m funding. The council’s clear focus will be on the delivery of the Tram Bridge, plus the plans for the main parks and the active travel infrastructure in the city centre.
“There will need to be a process of procurement and project management before work can begin,” the spokesperson added.
Power of the people
Friends of Tram Bridge group chair Glenn Cookson has paid tribute to all those who helped in the push to get a replacement for the structure included within Preston’s Levelling Up Fund bid. More than 3,000 people put their names to a petition calling on the city council to make the project part of its pitch for the government regeneration cash.
“As a proud Prestonian, I was ecstatic when I heard that the city had been granted the full £20m [for which it had applied],” Glenn said.
“The UK is navigating very tricky economic times, so Preston is very lucky to have received such a huge amount of money from the Levelling Up Fund pot, which was designed specifically for infrastructure. It’s fantastic news that the tram bridge is the star of the show.
“I truly believe that this result has been driven and led by the people of Preston and I wanted to say a special thank you to the Friends of Tram Bridge and everyone who signed the petition and supported the campaign.
“It has been great to be involved and see the Preston community come together to cultivate change and drive action. Community action groups are so important in influencing decision-making and driving positive change – and it really proves that when you speak up and take action about causes you feel passionate about, great things can happen,” Glenn added.
He also thanked former city councillor Daniel Dewhurst, who had been part of the campaign and helped organise the competition to design a new bridge.
Mr. Dewhurst said that the Levelling Up Fund announcement last month was “testament to the hard work and dedication of those campaigners who worked tirelessly for the past four years to see this bridge reopened”.
“Had it not been for their efforts, it is highly unlikely Preston City Council would have applied to the Levelling Up Fund for the necessary capital to make the project viable.”
The authority had initially expressed a preference for a bid based, amongst other things, on a new health facility.