Watchdog to probe bridge spend

Chain Bridge (Union Chain Suspension Bridge) spanning the Tweed, and the border between England and Scotland at Horncliffe
Chain Bridge (Union Chain Suspension Bridge) spanning the Tweed, and the border between England and Scotland at Horncliffe

An investigation will take place at Newtown after Scottish Borders Council’s executive agreed last week to increase its financial contribution to a bridge restoration project by £450,000 to £1m.

It will be undertaken by SBC’s watchdog scrutiny committee after the funding decision relating to the historic Union Chain Bridge – linking Scotland and England over the River Tweed – was “called in” by opposition councillor David Paterson (Ind, Hawick and Hermitage).

By Monday afternoon his challenge had achieved the required five signatures from fellow backbench councillors to trigger the scrutiny probe which is expected to take place in open session next week.

“The Borders public needs to know why we are spending money on this bridge and not fixing potholes or upgrading our roads, some of which are little more than cattle tracks,” said Councillor Paterson.

The bridge links Fishwick in Berwickshire with Horncliffe in Northumberland.

Built in 1820 and the oldest single span suspension bridge in the world still open to traffic, it has been beset by structural problems for many years.

In 2014, the threat of closure spawned the creation of a project board, led by Northumberland County Council, to obtain the lion’s share of the estimated £5m repair and restoration costs from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

SBC and Northumberland County Council then agreed to each commit £550,000 to the project in their 2015/16 capital budgets ahead of the formal lottery bid.

But a report to last week’s executive meeting revealed that the target for completing the lottery application had been missed and a new deadline of this month (August) set.

Members were also told the cost of restoration had risen to £7.8m, creating a funding gap of £900,000 for the two local authorities.

After hearing that Northumberland County Council would commit an extra £450,000 to the project, SBC’s executive agreed to do likewise, with the money being vired (transferred) from the roads and bridges capital block - £190,000 in 2019/20 and £260,000 in 2020/21.

Reacting to that decision, Councillor Paterson told The Southern: “The extra £450,000 is coming out of future block funding for our roads and bridges, but there were no answers, either in the report or the discussion, about the priority of this funding in the context of the council’s other spending requirements.”

Confirming the call-in investigation, Councillor Stuart Bell (SNP), chair of the scrutiny committee, said: “There was no consideration in the report to the executive about current usage of this bridge, nor any consideration of the costs and benefits of alternative courses of action.

“It is not clear if the council is spending £1m and has no other choices. The public has a right to know this.”

Mr Bell said a special meeting of scrutiny would be held “at the earliest opportunity” when evidence would be taken from the author of the report – project team management leader Euan Doyle – and executive member for roads, Councillor Gordon Edgar, who spoke in favour of the funding decision.