Britain's bridges set to fail 40-tonne lorry limit

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Indy Politics

Westminster Correspondent

Britain's motorway and trunk road bridges are unlikely to be ready in time to comply with an EU directive requiring them to be strong enough to carry 40 tonne trucks, says a report published today.

A study by the National Audit Office, the public spending watchdog, of the Government's pounds 2.2bn motorway and main road bridge repair and upgrading programme, found it has fallen behind schedule. Of the 1,241 bridges that need strengthening to meet the EU ruling, only a third have been dealt with since the programme was launched in 1987.

To hit the deadline, the Highways Agency, the Department of Transport's road management organisation, must strengthen almost twice as many bridges in the next three years. "A marked acceleration is required . . . if the Highways Agency's aims are to be achieved." But the bridges are also crumbling; the NAO found the number suffering "extensive deterioration" has gone up from 4 per cent since the programme began, to 7 per cent.

An added complication is the Government's squeeze on public spending. So far, some pounds 700m has been spent and this year's allocation is pounds 120m.

Future spending and the speed of the programme has been thrown into further doubt, though, by the last Budget in which Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, announced a tightening on funding for roads building and maintenance. "The Highways Agency's latest plans and targets . . . are being reassessed," noted the NAO.

The watchdog exposed a huge discrepancy in the cost of doing the work. In a survey of 173 bridges they found the costs charged by the agency's contractors ranged from pounds 53 to pounds 130 per square metre.