Campaigners fear the opportunity to reopen Preston’s historic Old Tram Bridge could be wasted as the window for a second round of funding passes by.

The prospect of restoring or rebuilding the historic walkway over the River Ribble - originally built in 1802 - was raised when Preston City Council chiefs said the future of the bid could be considered as an option for a bid to the Government’s Levelling Up Fund.

A total of £20million could potentially be available to the city council through that source and Councillor Robert Boswell, cabinet member for environment and community safety, said earlier this year the tram bridge would be ‘considered alongside the other competing priorities for the city’ as part of a future bid.

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But former city councillor Daniel Dewhurst, who has led the restoration campaign, fears the city council has missed its opportunity by delaying too long.

The funding has not yet been on the agenda of any full council meetings and with the next due to take place in December, he fears that will be too late for the Government’s deadline.

The Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Local Government is expected to announce the deadline for the second-round of the Levelling Up Fund before the New Year, which could see Preston potentially missing the deadline for a second time.

However, Councillor David Borrow, Cabinet Member for Planning and Regulation at Preston City Council insists the city council will not rush into a decision and will consider other ideas which could positively impact high street regeneration, local transport and health projects.

Mr Dewhurst, who co-founded the influential Northern Research Group, has now called on Preston MP Mark Hendrick to give his backing to the scheme.

Daniel Dewhurst, former Preston city councillor
Daniel Dewhurst, former Preston city councillor

He said: “Preston City Council’s approach to the Levelling Up Fund has left much to be desired with many residents beginning to question whether the authority truly understands the purpose of this scheme, or the sense of urgency that underpins it.

“What the council has completely failed to understand is that any proposed project must be delivered by the end of this parliament, and with one round having already passed with no bid submitted, time is running out to ensure our city receives its fair share of investment.

“Indeed, many authorities up and down the country have already submitted plans to the Government worth millions of pounds. Somerset West and Taunton Council for example has applied for £20m to bring an old industrial mill back into use. West Dunbartonshire Council has asked for £5m to purchase a shopping centre to stimulate the local economy. And Stockton Council has put forward plans to build the biggest exhibition centre north of Manchester.

“To the man or woman on the street, however, it appears as though the Preston still has no plan for the Levelling Up Fund and is reliant on leaving any submission to the eleventh hour. That approach could cost the people of Preston more than £20 million.”

In February 2019, the bridge, which runs from Preston’s Avenham Park to Penwortham, closed to the public due to serious worries over its safety.

While owned by Preston City Council, Lancashire County Council closed the structure after concerns were raised that it could collapse altogether after cracks were found in two thirds of its pre-stressed concrete beams.

Since then, the walkway has remained closed and the county council said earlier this year that ‘elements of the bridge are beyond repair’; hinting that the only viable solution would be the construction of a bridge across the river.

Mr Dewhurst continued: “Other than reopening this iconic structure, no other project on this scale has been identified that could realistically be delivered within the next few years and is ‘oven-ready’. The council says there are ‘more important priorities,’ – but as things stand today, those priorities represent little more than ideas on the back of a cigarette packet.

“For this very reason I have called on Sir Mark Hendrick to intervene and back our campaign. With the second round of funding fast approaching, we have the right to know, as Preston’s Member of Parliament, what he thinks this money should be spent on in what is quickly becoming a ‘use it or lose it’ scenario.”

Cllr Borrow said: “In 2021 government published a Levelling Up Fund prospectus. The fund is focused on investment in projects that require up to £20m of funding with projects needing to be completed by 2024.

Choppy water as the River Ribble passes under the Old Tram Bridge
A high River Ribble as it passes the Old Tram Bridge at Avenham Park

“This is an opportunity for Preston, with the city being named as one of 124 priority places in England eligible for capacity funding to work up bids from Round 2 onwards. This money has now been received.

“The prospectus sets out that there will be a number of bidding rounds for the Levelling Up Fund. Submitted projects need to be sufficiently developed, in line with treasury standard business cases. Round 1 closed in June 2021, with Preston City Council choosing not to bid, and further guidance for future rounds is expected this Autumn, possibly as part of the Spending Review and Autumn Budget.

“It is likely that Preston City Council will bid under Round 2 and a report, setting out how the council will consult and consider potential schemes, will be considered by the cabinet in due course.

“As this funding can be utilised for a range of projects it is important that we consider the different priorities and schemes for Preston, including high street regeneration, local transport and health projects that could all benefit from this funding.

“We acknowledge and understand there is a strong local interest in the Old Tram Bridge, but also recognise that the necessary works it requires includes significant investment which will need to be considered against other priorities in the city.”

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