Britain's longest bridge 'threatens wildlife'

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The Independent Online

Plans for Britain's longest bridge across a 12-mile wildlife haven in Morecambe Bay were unveiled yesterday, prompting criticism from conservationists.

Plans for Britain's longest bridge across a 12-mile wildlife haven in Morecambe Bay were unveiled yesterday, prompting criticism from conservationists.

The bridge, linking Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria with Heysham in Lancashire, would be much longer than the current record-holder, the Humber Bridge, which has a 1,542-yard main span. It would deliver some of the southern Lake District's healthy tourist trade to the old ship-building town of Barrow and slash journey times across the region.

Incorporating sophisticated sub-sea technology to harness tidal energy in the estuary's fast-flowing waters, the structure would also be the world's first "green bridge" according to David Brockbank, the local businessman behind the plan. But his designers must overcome environmental hurdles if they are to get it built. As Mr Brockbank and his financial backers outlined the plan's benefits at a public meeting yesterday, English Nature was warning that interference with the bay's tidal flows could affect wildlife habitats at one of Britain's most precious wetland sites. Mr Brockbank is the latest in an illustrious line of engineers and entrepreneurs to have been attracted by the challenge of creating a structure to link south-west Cumbria with Lancashire. The Victorian engineer George Stephenson toyed with the idea of building an Ulverston to Lancaster railway but eventually left it to others. Plans to build a barrage across Morecambe Bay surfaced 20 years ago - but were dropped on environmental grounds.

Mr Brockbank, a former chairman of the Lake District National Park Authority's development control committee, stumbled on the idea when considering how to expand his small hydro-electric power generation business, near Kendal. His plan is to build the bridge on a series of underwater stansions that incorporate Canadian-designed vertical axis turbines to harness the tides.

"We didn't set off to to build a bridge here," he said yesterday. "We want to put in tide turbines [to harness] the flow of the water going in and out of the bay [but not] restrict the water in any way." His Bridge across the Bay company includes Bill Davies, a director of Lancaster University's environment centre, and has British, Dutch and Australian investors. It is also supported by Cumbria Tourist Board on the grounds that it would bring more visitors to the southern part of the Lake District.

The proposals, which were recently backed by Cumbria county council, form part of an energy renewal strategy in North-west England, which has rich potential for wind and tidal power in the Irish Sea. A total of £1bn has been invested in renewable energy projects.

Though the bridge's capital costs are likely to be formidable, the tide turbines could generate half the power of a medium-sized power station and would make the project commercially viable, according to Mr Brockbank. The North West Development Agency has been approached for funding for further feasibility studies.

The project is pitching two old environmental adversaries against each other: the renewable energy lobby and conservationists. Morecambe Bay is second only to the Wash for its birdlife and its coastal lagoons and saltmarshes are among the most protected sites in Europe. "The bay is dynamic and reducing the amount of tidal energy [potentially] affects all the habitats and the wildlife they support," said Chris Lumb of English Nature yesterday.