PLANS to splash £6m on a new bridge over the Thames in Oxford have raised fears about whether the project can be completed before an unmoveable deadline.
Oxford City Council agreed to spend the government cash on a new river crossing between Oxpens Meadow and Osney Mead at a virtual meeting on Wednesday.
It also agreed to spent £300,000 of its own money on a feasibility study to work out where the best place to put the bridge is.
And a further £1m of the government funding, part of the Oxfordshire Growth Deal, will be spent on improving cycle lanes in Headington, Marston and other parts of the city.
But questions were raised about whether the huge sum for the bridge would not be better spent on making cycling improvements, and worries the money might disappear complete if it was not spent by 2023, a deadline set by government when the growth deal was agreed in 2017.
The new bridge behind Oxford Ice Rink would link the city centre with Osney Mead Industrial Estate, which is set to be redeveloped by Oxford University into a science and business park.
The crossing would be open to both cyclists and pedestrians, and has been in discussion as far back as 2013, when design drawings for it appeared in a masterplan for Oxpens.
A drawing of the planned cycle and pedestrian bridge from the 2013 Oxpens Masterplan. Picture: Oxford City Council/ David Lock Associates
Liberal Democrat opposition leader on the council Andrew Gant asked if there were any worries the money might be ‘clawed back’ if the project was not complete by 2023.
He said: “We are aware that the timing and deadline in the growth deal were already under significant pressure even before the current crisis and presumably the Oxpens development will not have been speeded up by the current crisis.”
Council leader Susan Brown said the report recommending the council to accept the money was written before the lockdown, in ‘a slightly different world’.
She added: “I know that government will be keen for us to meet our commitments under the housing and growth deal and we are also keen to spend this money as quickly as possible.
“But whether the original timetable is something we are able to meet is something we will have to look at over the next few months.”
Green councillor Dick Wolff added that the planned bridge was ‘actually very controversial’ within the extended cycling lobby in Oxford.
Some cycling groups, he said were keen to see the money spent on other things.
This included speeding up plans to improve cycle lanes across the city in line with UK government suggestions made in recent weeks that using a bike to get to work was crucial to stopping overcrowding on public transport after the lockdown.
Mr Wolff said: “With the Covid-19 theme there is quite a lot of energy about schemes which really need to be rolled out quickly in response to that.”
He added: “I know people are going to be asking me whether within that growth board funding there is scope to include other schemes.
“It may be that this is an opportunity to do other things which might be better.”
But Ms Brown said the money was specifically allocated for the bridge, and needed to be used for ‘infrastructure to support new homes’ in the city.
She was supported by the council’s chief executive Gordon Mitchell, who said the bridge was crucial to plans to overhaul the Osney Mead Estate and build homes near Oxpens.
Oxford University revealed plans to build a new science and business park at Osney Mead in 2016, and had originally planned to start making planning applications for the overhaul in 2019.
None have been submitted to the city council yet.