‘£400k replacement for Sidmouth bridge would only last a decade’

Alma Bridge. Ref shs 8760-10-15SH. Picture: Simon Horn

Alma Bridge. Ref shs 8760-10-15SH. Picture: Simon Horn - Credit: Archant

An inland replacement for Alma Bridge - costing hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ cash - will only last a decade if rapid erosion of Sidmouth’s cliffs is not tackled now.

That was the stark warning from a senior Devon County Council (DCC) engineer this week as the authority shared its plans for a new structure, 20 metres up the River Sid. It is hoped work can begin next April, writes Stephen Sumner.

A Sidmouth Town Council meeting on Monday saw Natural England accused of blocking the temporary defences necessary at Pennington Point to make the new bridge viable. Members in turn slammed the environment quango’s stance as ‘totally reprehensible’ and said it should be made to explain itself.

Addressing the town council, Nick Jennings, DCC’s principle bridge engineer, said: “Although we want to replace the bridge, that is dependent on arresting the erosion. It’s dependent on Natural England giving permission for protection.

“At the last meeting they said they were receptive to a softer type of intervention, but they aren’t interested in rock armour. Any soft protection is going to get washed away.”

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DCC has been surveying Alma Bridge regularly since 2012. Mr Jennings said its engineers have measured cliff erosion of two-metres-a-year - and at that rate the new bridge would be under threat within a decade. “If that carries on, it’s going to cause significant problems - even if we move it [the bridge] further upstream,” he added.

The proposed site of the replacement, based on the original by architect RW Sampson, is near the South West Water pumping station and would need to allow access for the organisation and activities on the Ham. If the erosion continues at its current rate, DCC will be looking to close the bridge next winter, forcing pedestrians to cross at Mill Street.

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Cllr Ian McKenzie-Edwards said: “Natural England is on the record for favouring natural erosion, but it [Alma Bridge] is an integral part of Sidmouth’s seafront. It deserves as much protection as the rest of the seafront. There’s no point putting a beautiful new bridge there if the eastern end is cut off because the cliff has eroded. Natural England continue to pursue their own dogged policy. It’s totally reprehensible. It’s regrettable Alma Bridge wasn’t protected when the [current] rock revetments were put in. Now it should be.”

DCC’s flooding boss, Cllr Stuart Hughes, who expects the new bridge to cost ‘around £400,000’, said: “Unfortunately we’ve been held back by Natural England. We should invite them to come and explain themselves.”

East Devon District Council (EDDC), which is drawing up a beach management plan, has previously said there is no government funding available for an immediate intervention. A spokeswoman said this week that the authority will keep Sidmouth Town Council informed at every stage of the plan’s development to ensure a ‘positive, productive outcome’. A Natural England spokesman said: “We recognise the challenges posed by coastal erosion at Sidmouth and we are working closely with EDDC to find a sustainable, long-term solution for the area. Alongside our partners involved in the BMP, we are currently looking at how we can address the concerns of local residents and businesses while protecting the internationally important wildlife sites that have helped to make Sidmouth the thriving town and tourist destination it is today. We understand that the council is looking at the possibility of introducing temporary defences at Pennington Point while a decision is reached on replacing Alma Bridge. Natural England’s role is to provide advice on any impacts to the natural environment and we will be happy to offer our advice on any specific proposals put forward.”

Sidmouth also falls within the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, which limits the options available. Its representatives, along with Natural England’s, will be invited to attend a future council meeting.

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