Investigation into cars using Orwell Bridge in high winds a 'high priority' as Ipswich suffers £1m economic hit
PUBLISHED: 05:30 04 January 2018 | UPDATED: 06:57 04 January 2018
Highways England has confirmed it is considering whether cars can continue across the Orwell Bridge in the event of strong winds as a "high priority" following yesterday's closure - the third in a year.
In October, the measure was suggested during a presentation to Ipswich Borough Council’s scrutiny committee, but has gathered momentum following the closure.
A spokeswoman from Highways England said: “This option is part of the ongoing studies we are carrying out and we are giving this high priority. Safety is a chief consideration for this option.”
The news comes as analysis from Ipswich Central suggested the town had lost £1million in revenue and disruption yesterday.
Ipswich Central chairman Terry Baxter said: “We represent 625 town centre businesses, the majority of which will be mystified by the latest closure of the Orwell Bridge.
“Our early estimates suggest that the decisions taken by Highways East yesterday and today will have cost our businesses over £1 million in lost revenue and disruption. That is totally unacceptable.
“I was involved in discussions with the highways authority nearly a year ago and was assured that any decision to close the bridge would be needed ‘once in a blue moon’ – instead, it has shut three times [in the last year].
“I am now urgently seeking a further meeting with senior representatives from Highways East to reassure me and our members that they fully understand the implications of their decisions and to find out what they have done and what they will be doing to keep future disruption to an absolute minimum.
“This cannot go on.”
A spokeswoman from the East of England Ambulance Service said: “The closure of the Orwell Bridge does impact on the ambulance service and our ability to respond to our patients in a timely manner, especially during such times of severe demand.
“The alternate routes will be heavy with other traffic, which takes time for our crews to navigate through.”
A Suffolk police spokesman said its officers were able to respond to all 999 calls.
The Suffolk Chamber of Commerce has been one of the partners working with Highways England as it compiles its new closure protocol.
But Steve Britt from the chamber’s transport and infrastructure board said such a closure impacted on business confidence in Ipswich.
“Whilst we felt in this particular case that there was early and widespread warning of the intention to shut the bridge, it is clear that the accumulated impact of such closures – both in terms of lost staff time and delayed deliveries – is a drag factor on business confidence in the greater Ipswich area,” he said.
“We do need a more nuanced set of responses in the medium term and, of course, longer-term infrastructure upgrades including a northern route in the longer.”
An estimated 42% of container traffic in the UK comes through Felixstowe, according to the chamber.
The Port of Felixstowe suspends its container loading and unloading when wind speeds reach 45mph, with the port warning lorries not to come during that time.
Paul Davey from the port said: “We have a vehicle booking system – when we know it’s going to be extremely windy we move the bookings so lorries don’t arrive and we are able to manage the flow of traffic.”
Highways England had posted a diversion system through Felixstowe Road and Woodbridge Road, but Ipswich MP Sandy Martin said more diversions were needed.
“I think it’s ridiculous having one route of single lane to compensate for dual carriageway,” he said.
“I am still not clear why the Highways Agency cannot come up with a more effective diversion system. In addition it shows the need for a northern relief road.”
A Highways England spokeswoman said it recognised the disruption bridge closures caused, but said safety was the primary concern.
“Safety is at the heart of everything Highways England does and we have the safety of road users at the forefront of our minds when we decide to close the Orwell Bridge because of severe weather,” she said.
“We are also aware that closures of the Orwell Bridge cause disruption around Ipswich and have been exploring short and longer term ways to keep disruption to a minimum with our partners locally.
“Some measures, which are part of a new protocol, have already been put in place and proven effective, and we are carrying out some studies to identify where we can make further improvements over the longer term.”
The bridge has been closed three times in the last year – once for a fatal crash in October and once for Storm Doris in February.
A closure for high winds also happened in November 2016.