One of England’s main north-south arteries could be swapped for another road outside Bath, but in the meantime a historic bridge is being “shaken to bits” by massive lorries, MP Wera Hobhouse has said.
The government is looking at upgrading the A350 into the main strategic route, replacing the A36/A46 that passes over Cleveland Bridge.
The decision will take years, and Bath and North East Somerset Council last month approved plans to refurbish the Grade II*-listed structure in a move that could pave the way for the return of 40-tonne lorries.
There is currently a temporary 18-tonne weight limit which Bath MP Wera Hobhouse said needs to be made permanent or the £3.9million spend will be a false economy.
Speaking during an adjournment debate in the House of Commons on 17th November, she said: “The investment 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 de-trunking these roads.
“This study 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, because urgent repairs to the structure will be carried out.
“The designs never envisaged that the bridge would be on a modern primary road network, with all that entails.”
She added: “The weight of modern HGVs is shaking the bridge to bits.”
B&NES Council granted listed building consent to repair and refurbish the bridge despite protests from councillors and residents claiming the “real motive” for the works was to allow the return of HGVs.
Government has allocated £3.56million to the project, with the remaining £360,000 coming from the council.
Mrs Hobhouse, who has secured 1,000 signatures on a petition to keep the 18-tonne weight limit, said: “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’s estimated that the repairs may only last for 15 years.
“Therefore, without permanent weight restrictions, my concern is that while progress will be slow to an upgrade to the A350, Cleveland Bridge will again be in need of urgent, serious repairs very soon.
“We can’t let that happen – it’s absolutely essential that we set a weight limit that the bridge can sustain for the long term.”
She urged the Department for Transport to give the council the power to keep the weight limit, arguing that it would benefit the nation’s heritage, help cut air pollution and boost the region’s economy.
The A350 runs from Dorset to Chippenham, while the A36 connects the West of England to Southampton. The roads cross at Warminster.
Transport minister Rachael Maclean said the West of England Combined Authority considers Cleveland Bridge as a key structure in the region, but any further restrictions would harm the economy.
She said: “Cleveland Bridge has had funds allocated to it for its repairs, but I understand the work has not started yet.
“Officers at the council propose that the work should begin in May or June of next year, subject to the backing of their members – some of whom share her [Mrs Hobhouse’s] concern of 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’m sure they’re listening to this debate with great interest.”
She said the government would engage with the council and other local stakeholders on the strategic plans for the road network.
Mrs Hobhouse reiterated her concern that the process would take years and again called on the Department for Transport to allow the council to keep the 18-tonne weight limit.
A 2012 bid to lower the weight limit failed following objections from Highways England and councillors in Wiltshire.
Stephen Sumner, Local Democracy Reporter