Friday, 12 August 2022

"Toll rise essential to pay for refurbishment"

THE owners of Whitchurch Bridge say the toll must increase after the cost of last year’s

THE owners of Whitchurch Bridge say the toll must increase after the cost of last year’s refurbishment shot up by more than £2million.

Whitchurch Bridge Company chairman Michael Beckley and secretary Geoff Weir were addressing a public inquiry into proposals to raise the charge from 40p to 60p.

More than 50 people attended the event, which was held at the George Hotel in Pangbourne on Tuesday.

Transport inspector Mike Moore heard arguments from both the company and residents who oppose the increase.

The Grade II listed bridge shut in September 2013 so engineers could reinforce the underside to cope with modern traffic levels. This was expected to cost £4.1million and was due to finish by the following April.

However, after several unforeseen delays, the final bill was £6.5million and the bridge did not reopen until September. The setbacks included severe flooding in January and February 2014, which put the project on hold for 10 weeks. Mr Beckley said: “This was a complex engineering project and an enormous undertaking for a company like ours, which employs only one full-time member of staff.

“The eventual cost almost exceeded 50 per cent of the original estimate due to exceptional circumstances of the flooding and the unusually complex nature of the reconstruction work. It is solely for this reason that the company must seek to increase the toll.”

Mr Beckley said the company initially borrowed £1.2million from Barclays to finance the work. As the cost escalated it negotiated a further loan, bringing its borrowing to £3.4million. The bank allowed the company 15 years to pay this back.

Mr Beckley said a higher toll was vital to cover the repayments while saving enough money for the next refurbishment in 100 years’ time. He said it had to be at least 50p but raising it to 60p would allow the company to subsidise its concessionary rate for residents.

A total of 293 residents sent letters of objection to the inspector and more than 1,000 signed a petition against the proposal.

They said the company should stop paying its shareholders dividends and not save until it had paid its debts.

Objector David Watson told the inquiry the company could survive on the 40p toll if it extended its repayment term to 25 years.

He said: “The company has been at pains to show how miserable its returns are but this is a virtually no-risk investment. Most of those involved inherited it without investing anything of their own in the first place.

“The shareholders should not be insulated from the risk of loss at the expense of bridge users.”

Mr Beckley said the shareholders’ rate of return had declined to 1.2 per cent, lower than that of other Government-regulated businesses such as utility companies.

Martin Brain, an Oxfordshire County Council highways consultant who advises the company, denied that it had mismanaged the project and said all delays were outside its control.

He said the Environment Agency would not let the work take place over the summer as it would cause disruption to river users.

The company looked at historic data to work out the risk of flooding that winter, which suggested it was far lower than transpired.

When the work restarted, contractors had to work overnight and bring in specialist equipment to avoid blocking the Thames’ navigation channel. This alone cost an extra £1.25million.

Mr Weir told the inquiry: “We have always maintained that the increase is regrettable but necessary. We were disappointed by the number of objections but believe that, while they are sincerely held, they are not based on accurate facts and pose no challenge to the arguments in our favour.”

The inspector will make a recommendation to Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin, who will make the final decision in the summer.

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