Sunday, 24 March 2019

Toll bridge sold for first time since being built in 1792

Toll bridge sold for first time since being built in 1792

WHITCHURCH toll bridge has been sold for the first time in its 227-year history.

The General Estates Company, of Hythe, near Southampton, has bought the private company set up in 1792 to maintain the Grade II listed crossing for an undisclosed sum.

The sale was completed last week but had been in the pipeline for about two years as the Whitchurch Bridge Company’s four directors wanted to retire.

They had offered it to West Berkshire Council and Oxfordshire County Council, which are both highways authorities, to run as a public road but neither was interested.

Both councils have had to make millions of pounds of cuts in recent years and it is thought that they didn’t think the extra maintenance cost was justified as Goring bridge is only four miles further up the River Thames and Caversham bridge is six miles downstream.

The General Estates Company, which owns Bathampton toll bridge, near Bath, and has a stake in another bridge at Dunham in Leicestershire, has been a shareholder in Whitchurch bridge for about 90 years.

Managing director James Percy is the great grandson of Thomas Percy, who purchased shares in the bridge in the late Twenties.

Mr Percy learned that the directors wanted to sell at the company’s shareholders’ annual meeting in 2016, so they began negotiating. The new owner says it doesn’t plan to increase the toll since it was raised from 40p to 60p in 2015.

There is also no major refurbishment planned as the bridge was taken apart and reinforced to cope with heavier traffic flows between 2013 and 2014.

The company may widen the roadway and pavement at the southern approach from Pangbourne.

The former owners had considered this but West Berkshire Council would not allow it without proof that the work was needed as trees at the verge would need to be cut down.

Geoff Weir, who lives in Whitchurch and was the bridge company secretary for 21 years, said: “We realised we were getting older and needed to think about the future of the bridge following the reconstruction work.

“This had been ongoing for some time and we are very happy with the outcome. It’s good for bridge users and we hope they’re reassured that everything will continue unchanged.

“The bridge company structure can only support a handful of directors so it appealed to General Estates because they’re already in the toll bridge business and it’s only a marginal increase in effort for their management. We liked the fact that they are a family-run company and wished to build on the work we’d already done.

“At no point have we ever offered it on the open market. We wanted a fair price but wanted the comfort of knowing it was in good hands, not least because we live here. This is quite an historic moment because it’s the first time that the company has been sold.

“It’s sad for us in some ways as it has been very interesting to serve as directors but we’re confident they will be a responsible owner.”

Mr Percy said: “It has always been a possibility that we could take over and I think it just reached a stage where it was the natural thing to do as it suited both our needs.

“Our company was incorporated 120 years ago so we have a lot of history and are not aggressive buyers and sellers of assets.

“We have owned some of our mobile homes sites for about 70 years so our strategy is to hold our assets and look after them.

“We’re pleased to have acquired the company and look forward to building on the directors’ good work and securing its long-term
prospects.

“The bridge is efficiently run and we have no intention to change how it is operated for the foreseeable future.”

The bridge company’s other three directors were Robert Plumb, who also lives in Whitchurch, chairman Mike Beckley, from Bicester, and Charles Micklem, from Amersham, who is a descendant of the company’s co-founder Robert Micklem.

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