Petition to save Preston's Old Tram Bridge rejected for council debate - but could still influence city's Levelling Up Fund bid

The leader of a campaign group calling on Preston City Council touse government “levelling up” cash to fund the reopening of the city’shistoric Old Tram Bridge says it is an insult that a petition bearingnearly 3,000 signatures will not be debated at a meeting of theauthority.

Tuesday, 5th April 2022, 9:09 pm
Updated Tuesday, 5th April 2022, 9:24 pm

Glenn Cookson, chair of the The Friends of the Old Tramroad Bridge, was speaking after it emerged that councillors would not be presented with the document – because it had failed to comply with rules designed to ensure that signatories have a direct connection to the city council area.

The authority has told the Lancashire Post that the content of the petition will nevertheless be considered as Preston decides on the project that should form the centrepiece of its forthcoming bid to the nationwide Levelling Up Fund.

However, former city councillor Daniel Dewhurst – who set up the petition – claims that the town hall is being “heavy-handed” in a deliberate attempt to block a formal discussion amongst elected representatives over the prospect of basing the city’s pitch to the government on the restoration of the landmark bridge.

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Glenn Cookson says locals have made their feelings clear on the future of the Old Tram Bridge - and their vioces should be heard (image: Neil Cross)

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IN PICTURES: Preston's Old Tram Bridge is to remain closed

It is more than three years since the cross-river connection was forced to close after a condition survey revealed that it was at risk of sudden collapse.

Since then, the estimated cost of funding a replacement – put at £6m early last year – appeared to have left hopes of restoring the crossing dead in the water. But campaigners say that Preston should try to use the Levelling Up Fund to secure the cash – either to build an entirely new bridge or carry out the necessary repairs to the existing endangered structure.

That was the call made in the petition, gathered via the website of campaigning organisation 38 degrees – and which has been signed by 2,827 people.

A bridge fist spanned the Ribble at this location 220 years ago

Under the authority’s petition system, achieving more than 1,350 signatures earns the right for the subject of the public’s pleading to be debated at a meeting of the full council.

However, the signatories have to provide their name and address – and, crucially, verify that they live, work or study within Preston City Council’s borders – a final confirmatory step that cannot be completed via a third-party website.

Daniel Dewhurst says that the council told him it had been able to verify only 946 of the signatories as living within the city borders – a process which the authority says took three staff several days.

While he claims that many of the remaining petitioners are likely to work or be educated in the city – and so would have counted towards the tally if their status had been verified – Daniel planned to set about collecting just over 400 more signatures from bona fide Preston residents in order to cross the threshold for a debate.

Preston's Old Tram Bridge was shut at short notice in February 2019 amid fears that it could fall into the Ribble - and it remains behind the barricades more than three years later

But he says the authority will not accept any additional names, meaning that the matter will not now be heard in the council chamber – a situation he described as “absurd”.

“I am in no doubt residents across Preston will be as dismayed as I am. By any reasonable standard, the council should have welcomed what is ostensibly the largest petition in its recent history and put the matter before councillors without hesitation.

“It has instead tried to thwart the petition at every stage of the process and has resorted to accusing campaigners of ‘falling foul’ of its outdated scheme in a trivial and desperate attempt to justify its decision,” Daniel added.

The council does regard the submitted document to be an “active” petition – for which a far lower bar is set of 50 verified signatures – and so a formal response will still be issued, in spite of there being no debate amongst members.

The condition of the Old Tram Bridge caused alarm during an inspection just over three years ago

However, Glenn Cookson said that it was nonsense to reject signatures from areas where residents may regard themselves as Prestonians even though they live over the local authority border in South Ribble – including Penwortham, the very town to which the Old Tram Bridge links from Avenham Park.

“From speaking to people at public events and seeing comments on our Facebook page, it would seem that those living south of the river are actually the most affected by the closure of the bridge – certainly from a commuting perspective.

“A lot of them miss walking and cycling over it into Preston – and from an environmental point of view, that means they will be getting in their cars or on public transport instead.

“Using the alternative [Avenham Viaduct Bridge] adds more time to their journey – it might only be 20 minutes, but that’s something that people can’t afford of a morning,” Glenn said.

In spite of the setback of failing to secure a debate, he believes that the momentum behind the campaign means that it will be “difficult for the council to ignore” what he says is the public clamour for Preston’s Levelling Up Fund bid to be centred around the restoration of the Old Tram Bridge link, which dates back 220 years.

“I just think it’s very sad that a non-political group hasn’t had the opportunity to have their campaign discussed in the council chamber.

The Friends of the Old Tramroad Bridge have been calling for the cross-river connection to be restored since it was cut off over safety fears three years ago. The group's chair, Glenn Cookson, says that residents living on both sides of the RIbble want to get their bridge back.

“We’re not talking about a one-man band petition, this is a campaign with a huge audience, so I think it’s quite insulting – and not democratic – that the voices of nearly 3,000 people are being denied,” Glenn added.

Jackie Wilding, director of resources at Preston City Council, said that the petition “did not meet the eligibility criteria for a full council debate, despite officers having had several discussions with the petition organiser outlining the requirements of the council’s scheme”.

She added: “Officers will now consider the petition and the content will be taken into account as part of the Levelling Up Fund bid. A preferred scheme will be recommended to cabinet on 20th April, 2022, and a bid will be submitted by early July.”

Details of the bid are set to emerge a week earlier when the matter is considered by the council’s overview and scrutiny management committee – ironically, the very same meeting at which a review of the “adequacy” of the authority’s response to the petition, requested by Daniel Dewhurst, will be heard.

District councils like Preston can bid for up to £20m from the Levelling Up Fund to finance either one proposal or a package of linked schemes up to that value. The cash pot is designed to reduce inequalities between different parts of the UK.

A second window for applications opened last week, with a deadline for submissions of 6th July. Bids should be based upon the themes of regeneration, culture or transport – with repairs to bridges being explicitly suggested amongst a range of possible options.

Having sat out the first round of the Levelling Up Fund – along with several other Lancashire authorities – Preston City Council revealed earlier this year how it planned to determine the project that will form the basis of its bid to Whitehall.

The authority said that its existing investment priorities would be the “starting point” for formulating the bid – and warned that it would have to balance the potential benefits of a range of possible schemes.

Preston has been given priority one status under the fund, meaning that it is considered to have the “highest levels of identified need”.

‘KEEP UP, PRESTON’

Daniel Dewhurst says that Preston City Council’s current petitionsystem has failed to keep pace with the way such documents are delivered in the digital age – and forces organisers to use either a traditional paper form or a council-run portal.

The former Conservative councillor claims that the set-up operated by the authority is “unworkable” – because data protection rules prevent third-party petition platforms like 38 degrees from carrying out the kind of verification process demanded by the council.

“Had the current scheme been followed to the letter, significantly fewer residents would have signed the tram bridge petition than those who subsequently did – and it would have been almost impossible to meet the threshold the council says is required in order for the issue raised

to be considered.

Petitions today are signed online – the council cannot continue to expect either petition organisers to use pen and paper or ask residentsto start creating accounts on its restricted website before they can use the e-petition facility and sign a petition. It is completely unrealistic,” he added.

However, in a report to go before the council’s overview and management scrutiny committee next week – as part of a requested review of how the tram bridge petition has been handled – the authority defends both its own e-petition system and the efforts it has gone to in this particular case.

“Mr. Dewhurst was advised from the outset what action he needed to take to ‘trigger’ a council debate. This advice was not acted upon even when it was reinforced following a meeting with officers.

“Due to the fact that Mr. Dewhurst chose not to follow the council’s petition procedure, he is requesting that he now have the opportunity to add a further 400 signatories to his petition, something which is not permitted under the current petition scheme,” the report states.

Outlining the operation of the council’s online petition portal, the report adds: “Once [an] e-petition is accepted, an individual completes a short registration form which creates an account instantly. The details required are their name, address, verification of where they live, work, or study in Preston and an e-mail address.

“The user then clicks on the petition they wish to sign, and this is added to the pool of signatures. An account is created for the user so multiple e-petitions can be signed without the user repeating the process each time.

“…[Preston City Council] understands there are third parties who specialise in e-petitions, who have better websites and software designed for e-petitions – however, the investigation found that the [Preston City Council] e-petition process works well and as it is intended.”

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The Old Tram Bridge received a multi-coloured makeover in September 2021 when a light show was used to highlight calls for its reopening (image: CDS events)
Former Preston city councillor Daniel Dewhurst has been pushing for the authority to put the Old Tram Bridge at the centre of its bid to the Levelling Up Fund