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Orwell Crossing project too vital to be sunk by petty political party posturing

PUBLISHED: 06:00 22 June 2017

Overall look of the bridges for the Upper Orwell Crossings. Picture: FOSTER + PARTNERS

Overall look of the bridges for the Upper Orwell Crossings. Picture: FOSTER + PARTNERS

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The future of the Upper Orwell Crossing has rapidly become the first major flashpoint of the new political dynamic in Ipswich since the election of Sandy Martin as MP two weeks ago.

The main bridge of the Upper Orwell Crossings. Foster + PartnersThe main bridge of the Upper Orwell Crossings. Foster + Partners

And I am beginning to worry that political posturing by some of those involved in these arguments could endanger the prospects of the town getting the most significant government infrastructure boost it has seen for more than 30 years.

New MP Sandy Martin has listened to critics of the scheme and is calling for a re-think on the project – ideally with the £77m earmarked by the government transferred to a new northern by-pass project.

He wants the two smaller bridges to be built – but not the large bridge linking the east and west banks of the Orwell.

I believe that this argument is fundamentally flawed and doomed to failure – but Suffolk County Council, where Mr Martin is still officially leader of the opposition, failed to bring him into the discussions early and brief him about the thinking behind the project.

Sandy Martin Labour MP for Ipswich Picture-Seana HughesSandy Martin Labour MP for Ipswich Picture-Seana Hughes

The aim of transferring the money is flawed because this £77m wasn’t allocated to Ipswich because some government civil servants and ministers thought it would be a good idea to invest that sum in the town and was looking for something to spend it on.

It was granted after Suffolk County Council and the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership, albeit with prodding from former MP Ben Gummer, developed a programme that was fully costed with financial benefits for the town and managed to persuade number crunchers at the Department of Transport, the Department of Local Government, and the Treasury that it offered good value for money.

If anyone turns around and says: “We don’t want the big bridge, we want a by-pass,” the government will say: “Okay, go away and make your case – but you can’t use this money.” It would either be re-allocated to another part of the country or, more likely, just re-absorbed into the Treasury’s coffers.

The northern by-pass and the Upper Orwell Crossings address different traffic problems – that’s why the county council is currently drawing up a proposal for funding for that as well.

The other point is, the £77m is for the entire Upper Orwell Crossing project. You can’t cherry-pick one bridge or two. It stacks up financially because it works as a whole, including easing traffic pressure on the Star Lane area.

Without all three bridges the project doesn’t make economic sense and it will fall down. There would be no regeneration of the Island Site, no new investment in land near Cliff Quay, nothing to ease the growing pressure on town centre traffic. That would be a shame.

For all those reasons, I think Mr Martin’s opposition to the Upper Orwell Crossing is misjudged – but why has he formed this view? A key reason appears to be that he hasn’t at any stage been fully-briefed by the Conservative administration at Suffolk County Council.

They saw him only as a political opponent and were not prepared to bring him into discussions – even though his party has by far the most county council seats in Ipswich.

That is starting to look like a huge miscalculation – and you would have thought that over the last fortnight they would be falling over themselves to meet him to discuss a number of issues, starting with the Upper Orwell Crossings. But that hasn’t yet started to happen.

I know there are tribal politics at work here – but they have to be set aside quickly to prevent a running sore from festering. Two years ago Mr Gummer beat David Ellesmere to return as MP. Mr Ellesmere remained as council leader and the two of them formed a very respectful partnership that has been good for the town.

I’m not expecting Mr Martin and the Tory leadership at Endeavour House to become best mates, but they have to start working together.

And the county council administration also needs to start talking to its neighbours over the road better.

Last week’s decision to axe the free bus shuttle was no surprise – and frankly the logic behind the move looks very sound.

But the cack-handed way it was dealt with, briefing the county council staff before the officials had had the decency to tell the drivers involved, left a very nasty taste in the mouth.

Those in charge at Endeavour House must remember that it isn’t good enough to make the right decisions. You also have to make them in the right way!

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