City's millennial bridge project gets the wobbles

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The Independent Online

The City of Carlisle, which vies for Britain's most dubious record in ambitious end-of-the century construction projects, has had to halt plans for a millennial bridge because of soaring cost estimates.

The City of Carlisle, which vies for Britain's most dubious record in ambitious end-of-the century construction projects, has had to halt plans for a millennial bridge because of soaring cost estimates.

The city's Gateway project, which topped off a millennium gallery with a glass pyramid and glass cube, has infuriated residents and is said to have terminated the council's old Labour administration, ousted by the Tories after 23 years soon after hatching the plans.

Now the millennium curse has struck its proposed Hadrian's bridge across the river Eden, which has had to go back to the drawing board. The Government's district auditor is investigating the council department responsible.

Carlisle council had already swallowed news that awkward topography would add £500,000 to the original £738,000 bridge tender from its architects' and engineers' department. Then consultants brought in to examine spiralling millennium project costs announced that the bridge could not be put up for less than £2.5m. The consultancy, MPM Capita, which is based in Manchester, also concluded that the entire Gateway project bill would come in at £11m - not the predicted £6.4m.

The council's millennial plans have been hit by every conceivable unforeseen extra cost: from £300,000 to preserve archaeological finds at the site for the gallery, to £40,000 for a referendum on the pyramid already under construction after protests.

After a Cumberland News phone poll showed readers were divided, with 2,776 against the plans and 1,342 in favour,the council paid for an advertisement in the newspaper, pointing out that the city would forfeit £1.5m in contractors' cancellation costs, not to mention its £3.2m Millennium Commission grant, if the Gateway project was scrapped.

There is no surprise, then, that Carlisle has a diminishing appetite for its bridge. After their latest three-hour debate on the subject councillors have, in the words of their spokesman, told the builders to "build it at the price quoted or forget it".

But the endgame may not be so simple. The Millennium Commission agreed a grant for Carlisle on the basis that all elements of its project (which include another bridge and atunnel reuniting the Norman castle and city centre, which were parted by a dual carriageway in the 1960s) be completed. A spokesman for the commission said: "We'll try to come to some agreement [but] Carlisle is contractually bound to build the bridge."

David King, a local auctioneer who won a council seat as an independent on an anti-Gateway ticket last year, said: "It is a colossal disaster. I want to see a full investigation into who has led us astray and misled the citizens of Carlisle. Someone must be accountable."

The Millennium Commission said it could point to more successes than failures. "If there were no hiccups we would be putting projects in the same, safe places. We have tried to put money into places where it would not otherwise have gone."

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