Morecambe Bay bridge plan revived

Proposal to connect Heysham to Barrow

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For those who live in the area, the concept of a bridge across Morecambe Bay has been talked about for so long it has taken on almost mythical status.

In the early noughties, the concept of a bridge connecting Barrow-in-Furness – on the south western tip of Cumbria – with Heysham, on the Lancastrian side of the bay, even seemed dangerously close to a reality.

However, the private initiative, spearheaded by former Lake District National Park Authority development control committee chair David Brockbank, collapsed
at roughly the same time as the world’s economy was doing the same.

In the last two years, the idea has risen from the sands again, with an even more ambitious plan by another private company, Northern Tidal Power Gateways.

It has ambitions to not only connect Heysham to Barrow across Morecambe Bay, but go further and bridge the Duddon Estuary between Barrow and the former ironworking town of Millom.

If things go well, there is even talk of building another bridge across the Solway Firth to Scotland.

NTPG’s plan would incorporate 130 hydro power turbines along the length of the bridges – 14km across Morecambe Bay and 5.5km between Barrow and Millom.

The company, led by chief executive Alan Torevell, owner and chairman of a Manchester wealth management firm, says its many advantages will include the reliable production of more than eight million megawatt hours of electricity each year, enough to provide 2 per cent of the nation’s power.

At the same time it says it will vastly reduce journey times from Lancashire to South Cumbria, opening up West Cumbria to tourism and creating more than 10,000 jobs from Fylde to Workington.

It estimates 7,000 would be generated during the construction phase and 6,000 on a permanent basis.

Transformational effect

Were it to go ahead, the effect on the towns concerned could be transformational.

Barrow is unfairly derided as the UK’s biggest cul-de-sac. Despite the presence of big employers like BAE Systems Maritime – which produces the Navy’s nuclear submarines – and huge offshore wind farms, it still struggles with poverty, ill health and a brain drain of young people.

Barrow councillor Frank Cassidy remembers his days as a reporter for the town’s local newspaper – then named the North West Evening Mail – when he was assigned to “bridge watch”, keeping readers informed of developments with the earlier proposal.

“We are talking about the years 2001 to 2005 when it was still going strong,” said Cassidy, Labour councillor for Walney South. “They were very optimistic and very determined but 2008 arrived and the economic crash and with it went the hopes of investment.

“I would be in favour of it, but the funding for it would have to come from the private sector.”

In Millom mayor Angela Dixon is all in favour of the concept, which she says could have major benefits for tourism and employment for
a place that is currently reached by a loop of minor road off an already windy
and remote A595.

“We would have a decent route out of here for starters,” she said. “The road is shocking and it’s not safe. To go to Barrow at the moment takes 40 minutes and if I went across the water it would take 10.”

In particular, she believes it would be a boon for commuters living in Millom but working at the major employers of Sellafield, to the north, or those in Barrow.

“Millom is a nice place to bring up your kids, but we are in a bit of a decline,” said Dixon. “One of the things we need to concentrate on is tourism. If we got the bridge it would open the whole area up.”

Heysham North Ward councillor Victoria Boyd-Power is also supportive.

“I think it would be an amazing thing for Morecambe and Barrow and it would open up the North West,” she said.  “Heysham could do with a bit of stimulation. It’s quite a quiet place at the moment.”

Green energy and social impact

Of course, the big barrier to the bridge is money. NTPG estimates it will cost £20 million for the planning phase and as much as £8 billion to take the project to completion by 2036.

However, Torevell believes it will be worth the price, not only for the contribution towards supplying green energy as the UK strives to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, but also because of the social impact for the areas involved.

“You can’t talk to people about ways to help themselves and their lifestyle if they can’t get jobs,” he said.

If the bridge is built, he is considering putting as much as 90 per cent of the shareholding for the scheme – tipped to make £450 million a year from power generation – into a community trust “to do social work and enable disadvantaged people to get the benefit from it”.

He also says the scheme will preserve the tidal range of Morecambe Bay, protect birdlife and wildlife sanctuaries and help reduce tidal surges to combat flooding.

NTPG says it is “committed to working with the Natural Environment Research Council and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology to ensure the environment is front and centre within our project”.

The Morecambe Bay area is filled with protected areas and, in May, two new Marine Conservation Zones (MCZ) were created there.

As well as being home to a variety of rare species of birds, fish, marine mammals, insects and native species that rely on the tides, in winter it provides an international safe haven for over a quarter of a million birds.

Environmental damage

A spokeswoman for RSPB England said it would be carefully considering the plans as they developed.

“The best places for tidal barrages and lagoons often coincide with internationally important wildlife habitats supporting huge numbers of wintering and migrating birds,” she said.

“Previous independent government reports have highlighted the scale of environmental damage that tidal barrages could cause and questioned whether mitigation of damage at a whole estuary scale would even be possible.

“It is vital that decision makers do not overlook the intrinsic value of wild and natural habitats such as saltmarsh, mudflats and wetlands that are also important in combating the effects of climate change. They must also look at the alternative and lower environmental impact ways in which we can generate renewable electricity.

“We will be carefully studying any plans in detail to ascertain the potential impacts on our threatened wildlife and coastal habitat.”

View from the bridge In October, NTPG had a report completed on the proposed project by consultants Mott McDonald, which it plans to use as an outline business case to push for funding, including from Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership.

The money would be used to complete more detailed investigations. These would include environmental studies and work to decide the exact route of the bridge and how it will connect to the existing network, as well as detailed work on power generation and modelling the impact on ports and flooding.

In Millom, Dixon looks forward to the day when she may be able to view Cumbria’s Lakeland fells from a platform on the bridge across the Duddon.

“If we had that in the middle of it you could see every Lakeland mountain from it. It’s so beautiful out there and the colours change every day,” she said.

But she is definitely not holding her breath. “It’s been promised since I was a kid and so people don’t believe it unless it actually appears.”

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