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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Newcastle’s Labour leader accuses government inaction in the Tyne Bridge restoration funding fiasco

Newcastle’s Labour leader has defended his council’s role in the debacle surrounding the restoration of the Tyne Bridge, insisting the blame lies solely with the Government.

Outrage continues to spread over the absence of more than £40m of promised cash to finally deliver the much-needed refurbishment of one of the North East’s greatest landmarks.

The Department for Transport (DfT) first pledged in 2022 that it would pay for the bulk of the rusted icon’s repairs, yet local leaders are still waiting for the funding to arrive and fear that any further delay could have dire consequences.

DfT officials claimed last week that a full assessment of the business case behind the massive maintenance project only began recently as Newcastle and Gateshead councils only submitted their last pieces of required information in December.

However, that has been furiously denied – with the Tyneside authorities insistent that they submitted their full business case last July and the last points of minor clarification in November.

Newcastle City Council leader Nick Kemp told a full council meeting on Wednesday night:  “Let me make it absolutely clear that any delay in the Tyne Bridge restoration project lies with decision makers in Whitehall.”

Preparatory works on the bridge have already begun, but the Government’s funding is required to move ahead with the main bulk of the engineering project – which will require two of the bridge’s four lanes of traffic to be shut for several years.

Local transport chiefs warn that a failure to start that work imminently will have a severe knock-on effect – allowing the bridge to deteriorate even further, pushing up the repair costs, and meaning the scheme will take longer than the expected four years as engineers are forced to work around disruption caused by another Great North Run and the nesting season of the Quayside’s kittiwakes.

That would potentially leave the listed crossing’s restoration incomplete by the time of its 100th anniversary in October 2028.

Asked by Lib Dem opposition leader Colin Ferguson what his administration had done to respond to the funding delay so far, Coun Kemp said civic centre bosses had been lobbying the DfT for months and last week sought the help of Transport for the North’s leadership.

Coun Kemp added: “There is no denying that the impact of any delay in starting this work could be huge for this city and the region and the uncertainty around this decision is already damaging enough. We are a proud region – proud of our heritage, proud of our roots, and proud of our icons.

“And we are a region of potential that is shackled by a Government that starves us of investment and this is a prime example. We have used what funding we can to start the works and mitigate any risks caused by a delay in the project, commencing as best we can.

“But we want to reduce the impact on communities and to do so we must begin the next stage of work as quickly as possible. Council officers have done a fantastic job submitting a comprehensive business case in a timely and efficient manner – there is no excuse for this funding not to be in place.

“The failure to release funding for this project lies at the door of Government and nowhere else. It is a concern that they have refused to acknowledge responsibility and be accountable.

“They have attempted to blame others for their shortcomings and they once again want hardworking people in our region to pay the price.”

The DfT announced in June 2022 that it would put £35.3m into a project to refurbish both the bridge and the Central Motorway.

Following Rishi Sunak’s Network North pledges made after the scrapping of HS2’s northern leg, an uplift in funding was then promised to cover the full £41.4m budget of the scheme.

Tensions between local authorities and the DfT over the issue escalated last week, with the Government having claimed that council officials did not submit all of the required documentation for their business case until December – meaning it was still in the process of being assessed.

The department said at the time: “Network North will see every penny of the £19.8bn committed to the Northern leg of HS2 reinvested in transport across the North, including the restoration of the Tyne Bridge in the North East.

“Last month the council provided the final supporting documents required to progress the business case, which is in the process of being assessed.”

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