A campaign group fears that plans to replace a Victorian bridge will open up part of West Sussex to oil and gas exploration.
The county council wants to replace Boxal Bridge, near Wisborough Green and Kirdford, with a wider, modern version.
The bridge, which dates back nearly 200 years to at least 1836, is next to land where Celtique Energy was refused permission to carry out exploratory drilling in 2014.
The area is still licensed for oil and gas exploration and is now held by held by Kimmeridge Oil & Gas(KOGL), a subsidiary of UK Oil and Gas. KOGL is exploring for oil at Broadford Bridge in West Sussex and UKOG is a partner in a site at Horse Hill in Surrey.
The residents’ group, Keep Kirdford and Wisborough Green (KKWG), which opposed Celtique Energie’s application, is now fighting to stop the new bridge.
Actor Sue Jameson, who has campaigned against oil and gas operations in West Sussex, said:
“I have always felt there was a danger if the bridge was replaced
“The county council have said their plans are nothing to do with oil and gas. But the bridge is 30m away from the copse where Celtique Energie applied to explore.
“It would not surprise me if somewhere at the back of it this is the aim to assist in future operations at the copse. And other people feel the same way.
“If there is any possibility that money is to be made here KOGL will take it. KOGL is continuing with Broadford Bridge and it has said it needs other sites in the area.”
Boxal Bridge is a registered community asset and matches three other local bridges. When it was last threatened in 2015 a petition attracted 3,376 signatures.
The existing bridge is wide enough for only one line of traffic and some residents question why the proposed replacement needs two carriageways and a footpath.
Sue Jameson asked:
“What on earth do they need such a wide bridge?”
KKWG commissioned its own expert who concluded that the exiting bridge needed some repairs but was structurally sound.
The group said Boxal Bridge had been shown to be capable of supporting 40 tonne heavy goods vehicles and wheel loads of 11 tonnes. This met the Highways Agency standard loading for highways bridges, it said.
KKWG argued that a new bridge could not be justified because the existing bridge was expensive to maintain, not strong enough or inadequate for local traffic.
In 2015, the county council adopted a resolution to work with the parish councils to find the find an acceptable solution for Boxal Bridge. But KKWG argues both parishes and the local community objects to the current plans.
Council officers are now recommending replacement of Boxal Bridge to address what they say are “all of the structural and safety issues that have been identified”.
A council spokesperson said:
“Repairing it would only delay the need for replacement for a limited time.
“The current proposal is to replace the bridge with one that can accommodate two lanes of traffic.
“The recommendation for the full replacement of the bridge and its possible size has been reached with highway engineering in mind and in complete isolation to any oil and gas exploration planning applications.
“At present the bridge is safe to use and will be regularly inspected to ensure it remains so until the replacement is built. A design will be prepared in collaboration with the parish councils but no timescales have yet been set for the rebuild.”
The decision is due to be finalised this month by the cabinet member for Highways and infrastructure, Cllr Bob Lanzer. The work is expected to be added to the 2018-2019 work programme.
There is a limited opportunity to challenge the decision. When it goes on the council’s executive decisions list, county councillors can ask for the decision to be “called in”.
If enough councillors make the request, the decision will go to the Business Planning Group, who will vote on whether to accept the call in.
If the decision is not called it will be approved with immediate effect. If it is called in, the Business Planning Group must meet within 18 days to question the cabinet member about the proposal and make recommendations.