It’s bad news for Ipswich, but the Upper Orwell Crossing is dead in the water

Former county council leader Colin Noble and ex-MP Ben Gummer at the unveiling of the Upper Orwell C

Former county council leader Colin Noble and ex-MP Ben Gummer at the unveiling of the Upper Orwell Crossing proposal in 2017. Now they have moved on, no one is left fighting so hard for the scheme. Picture: SUFFOLK COUNTY COUNCIL - Credit: Archant

The news that the construction of the Upper Orwell Crossing in Ipswich is “under review” by an independent consultant working for Suffolk County Council is likely to spell the death-knell for this exciting project.

Most of those I’ve spoken to on the record – including county leader Matthew Hicks and Ipswich MP Sandy Martin – are very keen to stress that nothing is decided and they will wait to see what the report says when it is published at the end of next month.

I have no doubt that the result of the report will be to see the scrapping of the scheme as it currently exists – although there may be a desire to go ahead with the two smaller crossings to the Island Site.

The figures for the project are, at present, simply not viable. The government offered £77m towards the cost of the project which was estimated at £97m in 2015.

Now I understand that the estimated cost is £120m, but the government would not increase its contribution – leaving the county to find a total of £43m. And it could go even higher before the bridge opens in 2023. I heard one suggestion of £150m. That was described as “extreme high end” by one person at Endeavour House – but that would leave the county to pick up a bill of £73m.

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Could the cost really go up that high? Who knows? But construction inflation is running at a high rate at present – the cost of the proposed restoration of Ipswich Broomhill Pool has gone up from £6.5m to £7.25m over the last year so you don’t need to be a mathematical genius to see why the county is getting nervous about the final bill for UOC in 2023!

Assuming it is cancelled, what will it mean for Ipswich? It will be a big kick in the teeth for the town’s business community who had hoped the crossings would invigorate that area of the town. It would also deny the town another Norman Foster landmark to sit alongside the Willis building.

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It would deny the opportunity to change the traffic flow around the Waterfront – although I’ve always had my doubts about whether the councillors and officials at the county council would have had the courage to close one of the carriageways of the Star Lane Gyratory to car drivers.

I would personally be very sorry to see the scheme dropped, and many would see it as the county council and government turning their backs on Suffolk’s county town – but from a financial point of view it is a decision that has to be taken especially when you see the problems facing many other authorities like Northamptonshire, Surrey, Somerset, and (potentially) Norfolk.

It was one thing to press ahead with the scheme when there was an MP (Ben Gummer) keen on the project and with an ability to knock on the door of a Chancellor of the Exchequer (George Osborne) who believed in the project.

He might well have been able to find the extra money need behind the Treasury’s sofa – but today’s government ministers really don’t seem to have any real connection with Suffolk’s county town and it is difficult to imagine Chancellor Philip Hammond or Transport Secretary Chris Grayling giving too much time to Mr Martin even if he was the keenest advocate of the scheme (which he certainly isn’t!).

What the abandonment of the Upper Orwell Crossings will do, of course, is to feed into the narrative felt by many people living in Ipswich, and Suffolk generally, that the county town doesn’t matter in the eyes of those in government or even in Endeavour House.

At the county council, the idea that there was something “special” about Ipswich ended when the town’s cabinet member was given other responsibilities on top of his stewardship of the Ipswich matters.

Ipswich doesn’t seem to have benefitted as much as many other similar sized towns and cities from major lottery projects. Our proposals for a new Gipswic Centre and a major revamp of the town’s museum were both rejected while Bury Cathedral got its new spire and Norwich got the Forum and the castle revamp.

That has prompted many to feel Ipswich has had a poor deal when grants are made for new projects. Sooner or later it should be the town’s turn – but we may have to wait a long time for that to come to pass.

Thank you, everyone.

On a personal note I must thank everyone who has sent me notes, tweets, and e-mails after my column last week. It meant a great deal to me. I’m still enjoying being back at work – and hopefully this is the last time I will refer to that particular subject in print!

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