With a remaining lifespan of ten years at best, the mounting costs being spent to refurbish Rhubarb Bridge resurfaced at last week’s Peterborough city council meeting.
Rhubarb Bridge is rarely out of the news in Peterborough these days. It seems this iconic piece of steel and concrete, which, in its current form was constructed in the early-1970s, has somehow found its way into the hearts of the people of the city.
First tax payers were told that it would be completely uneconomical to repair and therefore should be demolished. And so, just over eighteen months ago, plans for a new structure costing £5.5m were unveiled.
But the people of Peterborough didn’t like the sleek look of the new structure, arguing that four separate crossings for pedestrians and cyclists to pass through the roundabout was unacceptable; that the design would create significant wait times for pedestrians and cyclists and increase the likelihood of pedestrians and cyclists coming into conflict with vehicles. Finally, by moving pedestrians and cyclists to ground level there was a considerable increase in exposure to pollution and poor air quality (especially for pupils who use this roundabout twice per day).
Earlier this year, following a sustained campaign, the public demanded that Rhubarb Bridge be saved and refurbished (at considerable expense), rather than knocked down to build a new one.
Peterborough City Council would therefore need to refurbish the crossing at Junction 18 of the A47/A15 at a cost initially expected to be no more than £1.15m. Now, Cllrs are challenging the spiralling costs of that refurbishment which are rapidly approaching the cost of a new bridge – all of which led to heated exchanges at last week's (Wednesday) Full Council meeting.
Cllr Richard Ferris (Lab) said: “I notice that the remaining proportion of the overall budget set aside for demolishing Rhubarb Bridge is now going to be used to make significant repairs. This implies that the up-grade crossings remain part of the plan. If this is so, can members please have an explanation as to why it remains necessary to install up-grade crossings at this junction when: firstly, the costs involved are so high; secondly, safety concerns have been voiced; and thirdly, given restrictions on creating a suitable shared space for cyclists and pedestrians on the central roundabout?”.
Leader of the Council, Cllr John Holdich (Con), explained: “Rhubarb Bridge is going to have to close during the refurbishment process, so therefore you do need up-graded crossing. Also, it is impossible to make it disabled compliant because the gradient at the moment is 12:1 and to get it to disabled standards it needs to be 20:1 – so an alternative is needed to allow disabled people to cross there”.
“Looking at the project long-term it can’t be replaced because of the amount of additional space that would be required to provide a disabled compliant structure – so, even though we’re spending good money after bad, and the bridge might only last for another ten years, we’ve done the right thing by the people of Peterborough because that’s what they asked us to do”.
However, Cllr Ed Murphy (Lab) was not impressed: “We’ve been told ‘Porky Pies’ all along about this bridge. At first we were told it would cost £30m to replace, then the devolved Mayor gave us some money to do an inspection and we were told actually, no, it’s not falling down, it will last for a while yet, all of which only came out after a petition, public outcry and debates”.
“Does the Cllr not agreed with me that the upgrade crossing will be dangerous? It will be polluted down there, and necessary to dismount a bicycle in order to cross, which could cause an accident – please remove the up-grade crossing option, save some money and enhance safety”.
In response. Cllr Holdich explained: “We didn’t lie about Rhubarb Bridge and there were all kinds of silly figures mentioned to build a new one – but the fact remains that there are sixty-six defects with that structure”.
“The pre-cast part of the bridge which was brought to the site is fine, but some of it was cast onsite and this is concrete that should last for about a hundred years, and it simply isn’t. And we’ve got up-grade crossings elsewhere in the city and I don’t believe that they are in anyway dangerous”.
Cllr Nick Sandford (Lib Dem) recalled a different set of events, however: “Cllr Holdich speaks of ‘silly figures’, but they were quoted in the council officer’s own report. I remember being in this chamber and being told that Rhubarb Bridge was totally beyond repair, and that I was ‘acting irresponsibly’ and ‘putting the public’s safety at risk’ because I wanted the bridge to be repaired”.
“Okay, I can accept that we are where we are, but can the member answer me this one question: If we keep switching and swapping over like this on all these issues – and let’s not forget that we’ve had the city tourist information centre in five different places over the last twenty years – then is it any wonder that the council is in a financial crisis?”.
Cllr Holdich came back: “All I would say is that if we’d known five years ago where our finances were going to be then yes, we’d probably do some things differently; but finances are under huge pressure and they alter every day, and they alter every year”.
“If I was going to spend £1m of my own money, then truthfully I wouldn’t spend it on that bridge – because I actually think its money wasted, and it’s only going to last ten years. But that’s what the people of Peterborough asked us to do – so that’s what we’ve done”.