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Cleveland Bridge: Weight Limit

Volume 684: debated on Tuesday 17 November 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David Duguid.)

Good evening, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am very grateful to have been granted this debate on the future of Cleveland bridge, which is of high importance for my constituents in Bath. I look forward to the Minister’s full response.

Cleveland bridge is a grade II* listed structure. It forms part of the character of Bath’s UNESCO world heritage status. It is worth reminding fellow hon. and right hon. Members that Bath shares its unique status only with Venice. Not just parts of our city but the whole city and its setting are a world heritage site. The protection of the city as a whole is of national importance, and it should not just be the citizens of Bath and the council that are called on to safeguard this treasure for future generations.

There is another aspect to this debate. Bath is a city identified as suffering from illegally high levels of air pollution, and it has been ordered by the Government to bring pollution levels down to the required legal minimum. The council has worked hard to develop a strategy in response. The route with one of the highest levels of air pollution is London Road leading towards Cleveland bridge.

Cleveland bridge links the north and the south of the city over the River Avon just a short walk from the city centre and is surrounded in all directions by listed architecture. Unfortunately, it is part of the primary road network and therefore has to be open to all traffic. The bridge consists of 19th-century ironwork with a 1920s concrete deck, but the weight of modern heavy goods vehicles is shaking the bridge to bits. Heavy traffic on the A36 and the alternative A350 has been an ongoing source of tension for many residents for many years. Not only are there issues at Cleveland bridge, but just a few miles away at the village of Limpley Stoke, the A36 suffers from regular landslips. It is also true that the A350 has issues and needs better infrastructure.

In 2009, Wiltshire Council attempted to put in the Westbury bypass to improve the A350 corridor. That was supported by Bath and North East Somerset Council, but the implementation of the plan was stopped by a public inquiry in 2009. In 2012, Bath and North East Somerset Council attempted to put a weight limit on Cleveland bridge. Objections were received from Wiltshire and Highways England, leading to a judicial review. Bath and North East Somerset Council was told it could not impose a reduced weight limit of 18 tonnes.

It is of note that the 2012 ruling states that

“we are conscious of Bath and North East Somerset’s important concerns about local air quality. The Department is not, in line with PRN guidance, commenting on the air quality aims of the proposed scheme.”

Eight years on, and especially since the challenge to Government by ClientEarth, the goalposts on air quality have completely changed. It is time that the Department for Transport commented on air quality in Bath when it comes to the A4/A36 route over Cleveland bridge.

It is clear that from the south coast to the M4, there is a shortage of suitable routes to take north-south traffic. For example, routes travelling east to west move at approximately 60 mph, but north-south routes travel at 30 mph. The impact is not just about lorries going through villages, but the loss of economic activity and efficiency.

Over the past few years, Wiltshire Council, Dorset Council and Bath and North East Somerset Council have formed an alliance. They recognised that, however much investment they made as local authorities, it would not be enough to fund the improvement of any one route. Additionally, if any authority favoured a particular route, it would become politically very challenging. I thank all colleagues across those three local authorities for the work they have put in so far, working together on a complex set of circumstances.

The alliance threw the question back to the Government and asked for an economic study to take place, and the relatively simple question was: which is the best route, and how do we improve it? This is now called the strategic study and is being undertaken by Highways England as part of its road improvement strategy. Highways England and the Government now have ownership of the issue. The A350 has been selected to be looked at in-depth.

I am grateful to the Minister, Baroness Vere from the other place, for responding to me in her letter on 22 October. She wrote that the improvement strategy will review the case for adopting the A350 corridor as the main strategic route in place of the A36/A46 and will consider the case for trunking or detrunking these key roads. The study alone will take until approximately 2023 to complete and then, if adopted, the third phase of the road improvement strategy will provide the framework to implement and pay for the necessary upgrades. In the meantime, Cleveland bridge will be closed for much of next year as urgent repairs to the structure are carried out. I am grateful to the Department for Transport for making funds available.

As I said before, Cleveland bridge is a grade II* listed structure. In their 1992 report, the engineers who carried out the last set of repairs stated that they did so on the understanding that the then local authority would exclude the heaviest vehicles. That never happened. In fact, it got worse.

The challenge of a listed heritage asset is that you have to work with the structure as it is listed. You cannot replace the Victorian ironwork—because it is listed. You cannot replace the 1920s concrete deck—because it is listed. You can only repair and strengthen them, but they will never be stronger than when they were new, and when they were new, they were never expected to carry the very heavy vehicles that are being used today. The innovation of the bridge’s design, in both the early 19th and 20th centuries, is recognised in its listing, but those designs never envisaged that the bridge would be on a modern primary road network, with all that that entails.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David Duguid.)

Next year will see the very latest technology deployed to save the 1920s concrete structure. The danger is that bringing back the heaviest lorries will hasten the collapse of the deck, destroying the listed asset forever. With continuing heavy lorries, it is estimated that the current repairs may last for only 15 years. Therefore, without a permanent weight restriction, my concern is that while progress will be slow on an upgrade to the A350, Cleveland bridge will again be in need of urgent, serious repairs very soon. We cannot let that happen. It is absolutely essential that we set a weight limit that the bridge can sustain for the long term.

The Department for Transport has expressed its view that the A350, as the major north-south link, is a viable option, and in Bath neither I nor the council would disagree. However, the Department for Transport has not done enough so far to create a consensus among councils and MPs in the Wiltshire constituencies to take this option forward to its final completion. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister whether the Government are actually looking into any other viable options.

In the meantime, people in Bath have waited for years for a solution. So, while we are waiting, the first thing that I would like to happen is for the Department for Transport to allow Bath and North East Somerset Council to have the power of decision making over its own infrastructure and keep the current 18-tonne limit. The council does not have that power on its own.

We are looking for the Government to consent to a permanent 18-tonne weight limit on Cleveland bridge. That is my ask to the Minister. The co-operation of the Government would benefit not only the people of Bath but the whole nation, and safeguard our heritage for future generations. The impact of a weight restriction would help to reduce air pollution across the city, in line with the Government’s important aim to improve people’s health. Last but not least, it would work in tandem with the Government’s ambition to improve their strategic A350 network and the overall economic benefits to the region. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) on securing the debate. I know that Cleveland bridge, that iconic grade II* listed structure, which she has described in great detail and very eloquently, built in 1826, is of great significance to her constituents, and indeed the nation. As she highlighted, it is a UNESCO world heritage status site.

I know that many of the hon. Lady’s constituents have contacted her about this important local issue, and she has been extremely assiduous in discussing their thoughts and concerns in more detail. I of course agree with her that the protection of Bath is of national importance, and that is why it is good to have this debate tonight.

I want to put on the record a note of thanks to the hon, Lady’s local colleagues in Bath. She references the work on the clean air zones and the strategy. My Department has very close working with Bath, and we very much appreciate and thank those people for their work taking forward that important policy.

As I am sure the hon. Lady is aware, the Government are taking action to invest to improve England’s local highway infrastructure—the dense network of local roads of which Cleveland bridge is part. We know that, without that investment in local roads, delays and disruption occur for the travelling public and businesses. I am really glad that the hon. Lady referred to that. She noted and appreciated the funding that Bath and North East Somerset Council has received from the Department for repairs to that iconic great bridge. The Department’s grant for the project is £3.56 million of a total cost of £3.92 million, and the council is providing the remaining £360,000.

The highways maintenance challenge fund enables local highway authorities to undertake major maintenance projects that are otherwise difficult to fund from the regular highways maintenance block funding allocations. Improving and maintaining our local transport infrastructure is essential for economic growth and connectivity, and Cleveland bridge is certainly no exception. As part of our wider commitments to road maintenance, the Government are committed to improving local journeys and ensuring that our local road network is safe and reliable. We are therefore investing more than £7.1 billion in highways maintenance between 2015 and 2020-21 to help councils to keep roads and vital local infrastructure, such as bridges, in good condition.

I thank the Minister for elaborating on the funds that are available. As I mentioned in my speech, the problem is that if the bridge continues to have heavy goods vehicles on it even after the repair, it will very quickly need repairs again. Is it not a false economy not to put a permanent weight restriction on the bridge?

I thank the hon. Member for her questions. I assure her that I will address those points—I hope, to her satisfaction. I have a copy of her letter to the Department with me.

We know that road condition, particularly the quality of road surfaces, is a concern for all road users, so we are making more money available for major repairs and trials of new technology to help local authorities future-proof our roads.

The local enterprise partnership, the West of England Combined Authority, considers the repair of Cleveland bridge and Saint Philip’s causeway viaduct as priorities. It sees Cleveland bridge and St Philips causeway as key structures in its regional network. As the hon. Member rightly said, issues on both structures have resulted in weight and speed restrictions, which the authority considers incur significant associated economic cost. Its view is that further restrictions will have an impact on safety, the economy and air quality, with higher carbon emissions. That is why the authority is very supportive of investment prioritisation for both these schemes.

Cleveland bridge has had funds allocated to it for its repairs, but I understand that the work has not started yet. Officers at the council propose that the work should begin in May or June next year, subject to the backing of council members, some of whom share the hon. Member’s concerns about the impact of HGVs on routes through Bath if the 18-tonne weight restriction is removed when the bridge is repaired. It would be a matter for the council to decide how to go forward, but I am sure that it is listening to the debate with great interest. I encourage her to continue working closely with the council to ensure that these important works can be undertaken.

I turn to the road investment strategy, which the hon. Member also touched on in her remarks. Bath’s Cleveland bridge provides a link between the A46 and A36 roads, which approach either side of Bath. It therefore forms part of an important through route between the Dorset coast and the M4. The majority of the route is part of the strategic road network—that is, roads managed by Highways England that link our most important population centres and international gateways, such as ports and airports.

Through the setting of periodic road investment strategies, the Government set out their strategic vision for the network and specify what Highways England must deliver in terms of road enhancements and day-to-day performance. To inform the content of the strategies, the Department and Highways England develop a substantial evidence base about the network, its current performance and likely future pressures. This is a product of several years of research, analysis, public engagement and consultation. These issues are of central importance in and around the city of Bath, and any long-term solution for reducing the impact of traffic at the Cleveland bridge will need to acknowledge and respond to this sensitive and deeply valued setting in relation to the natural, built and historic environment.

The hon. Member mentioned the strategic study. In situations where there is a recognised substantial problem or gap in current transport infrastructure, the Department commissions such a study to examine the issues and consider options that could address them. The unsatisfactory nature of the A36/A46 route passing Bath has long been acknowledged. The present dualled A4/A46 trunk road, the Batheaston bypass, was opened in 1996, but proposals to link the A4 to the A36 at Bathampton were rejected following a public inquiry. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for providing a lot more detail on the history associated with that to the House.

Subsequent proposals to revisit the options at that location, promoted by the local authority in connection with proposals for an eastern park and ride site, have not resolved the issue. There is a general recognition of the substantial factors that constrain choices for making meaningful improvements. In that light, the second road investment strategy committed Highways England to carrying out such a strategic study that will review north-south connections between the M4 and the Dorset coast. That will include a review of the case for adopting the A350 corridor as the main strategic route for the area in place of the A36/A46 via Bath and will consider the case for the trunking or de-trunking of key routes. So I hope I can reassure the hon. Lady that both Highways England and officials in the Department will engage with the Western Gateway as well as with a range of local stakeholders as the study develops. I should add that decisions about how Bath is best linked to the major destinations are for the relevant local highway authority to make.

I thank the Minister for the detailed description of what is taking place now, but, as I said in my remarks, this will take years, and in the meantime the people of Bath have an 18-tonne weight restriction on the bridge. Why can the Department not allow Bath and North East Somerset Council to retain that limit? It will be good for the bridge, the people of Bath and our national heritage.

I thank the hon. Lady for her questions and her persistence. I have no doubt that the relevant stakeholders, including the local highway authorities, will be listening with great interest when they come to make their deliberations on these really important issues for the people of Bath.

In closing, I have mentioned the engagement taking place, but if the hon. Lady wishes to continue more engagement here in this place and with my noble Friend Baroness Vere in the other place, who is responsible directly for this particular matter of policy, I am sure she will find a lot of reassurance that she can offer her constituents. I thank her once again for this debate.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.