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Ipswich’s Upper Orwell Crossings in doubt after Suffolk calls for rethink

PUBLISHED: 14:56 31 July 2018 | UPDATED: 16:42 31 July 2018

An aerial view of the Upper Orwell Crossings.  Picture: SUFFOLK COUNTY COUNCIL

An aerial view of the Upper Orwell Crossings. Picture: SUFFOLK COUNTY COUNCIL

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A huge question mark has been raised over the future of the Upper Orwell Crossings in Ipswich after Suffolk County Council announced it was suspending work on the project to allow its costs to be reviewed.

New council leader is Matthew Hicks. Picture: GREGG BROWNNew council leader is Matthew Hicks. Picture: GREGG BROWN

The scheme to build three bridges across the river near the town centre was originally costed at £97m – with three quarters being met by central government and rest coming from local sources.

However the cost is thought to have increased considerably since it was first proposed three years ago – but Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has made it clear that his department is unlikely to increase its contribution to the project.

The proposals are for a major road bridge from Wherstead Road on the west bank of the Orwell to Cliff Quay on the east side of the river.

There would also be a smaller bridge across the New Cut from near Felaw Maltings to the Island Site. And a new pedestrian and cycle access would be created across the Wet Dock lock gates.

The winning designs were unveiled in 2017. Picture: SUFFOLK COUNTY COUNCILThe winning designs were unveiled in 2017. Picture: SUFFOLK COUNTY COUNCIL

Those schemes would open up the Island Site for new development. There have been suggestions these smaller projects could go ahead even if the major road bridge was abandoned.

New Suffolk County Council leader Matthew Hicks decided to suspend work while the independent review is carried out by engineering specialists from Jacobs. The outcome of the review is expected by the end of September.

A recent internal review of costs forecast that the total amount needed to complete the project could increase significantly from the original estimate and this additional money would most likely have to be found locally.

So far the county has spent £7m on preparing the case for the Upper Orwell Crossings, including public consultation exercises and projections of a likely route. The government funded a £2m business case at the state of the process.

Overall look of the bridges for the Upper Orwell Crossings from Foster + Partners.Overall look of the bridges for the Upper Orwell Crossings from Foster + Partners.

Mr Hicks said: “Since becoming leader, I have asked my senior team to review the major infrastructure projects Suffolk County Council is working on. The Upper Orwell Crossings is one of the biggest and most complex.

“It’s clear to me that whilst the significant project is being managed well, there is currently some uncertainty around the costs. If we’re going to proceed and build these bridges, that uncertainty needs to be addressed right now.

“We’re going to pause work temporarily, pending the outcome of this review. Then, based on sound and independent advice and considering everything we know about the project, Suffolk County Council will make a decision on the future of the Upper Orwell Crossings.”

Ipswich Council leader David Ellesmere said he was not surprised about the concern – the cost of the scheme seemed likely to rise and there was concern among many homeowners about the proposed routes.

But he hoped the money the county had already committed could be used to provide access to the Island Site.

He said: “Whatever the decision of this review, I hope the county will be able to ensure that the two smaller bridges are completed to allow the full potential of the island site to be developed.”

Ipswich MP Sandy Martin, who has expressed doubts about the project since he was elected to parliament last year, welcomed the review: “I think it is a very sensible decision and it will give the council an opportunity to look again at a project with some very substantial costs.”

The suspension was also welcomed by Conservative borough councillor, and former leader, Liz Harsant whose Holywells ward includes many properties that would be affected by the new road across the river.

She said: “I think it is right that the county should look again at this. There is a lot of uncertainty about it and residents in that part of the town are very concerned about how this might impact their lives.”

The Suffolk Chamber has been a key backer of the scheme. Chief executive John Dugmore said: “Suffolk Chamber of Commerce appreciates the motivation behind this review of the Upper Orwell Crossings: after all businesses have a vested interest in ensuring that publicly-funded projects always represent good value for money.

“Recalling the general support from most of the businesses we have spoken with for this project, we do, however, look forward to there being clarity as to the next steps in its implementation by September.”

Will the crossings ever be built? How we got to today’s announcement

The proposal to build a new crossing over the River Orwell was first unveiled by former MP Ben Gummer in the run-up to the 2015 General Election.

It was designed to ease traffic around the town centre and to open up the “Island Site” between the Wet Dock and the New Cut to become a new high-tech enterprise hub.

In his 2016 Budget, former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne gave the project official backing – pledging £77m of government finance towards the Crossings which were priced at £97m. The rest would have to come from the county council.

In early 2017 Foster+Partners were chosen as the design team to develop the three bridges that would be needed for the scheme, and later that year detailed testing of soil began.

Earlier this year tentative routes for the main road changes were published – but these caused major concern for many residents. The crossings are due to open to the traffic by 2023.

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