An increasing number of Britain’s road bridges are crumbling, with more than 3,200 identified as being substandard with a £ 1.2bn repair cost, local authorities say.
In the past year, more than 100 council-maintained bridges have been declared unfit for the heaviest vehicles, according to research by the RAC Foundation, with 17 bridges collapsing entirely and 37 partially in that time.
The analysis, based on responses from councils across England, Scotland and Wales, found 3,211 substandard bridges – but only a few hundred were likely to be repaired in the next five years owing to a shortage of funds, authorities said.
The numbers included everything from road bridges spanning small streams, as little as 1.5m wide, to the high-profile closure of the once-busy Hammersmith Bridge across the River Thames. Vehicles have been banned since April 2019 from driving over the west London bridge, after the discovery of cracks in the pedestals of the 135-year-old structure. Reopening hopes were raised this week when the government promised £ 3m towards the £ 9m repair costs.
Other examples include Park Bridge, in Aberdeenshire, which has been closed since 2019 with an estimated £ 750,000 repair bill. Drivers are forced to make an 8-mile diversion.
Devon has the greatest number of bridges in disrepair – 229 – while Dorset has had the most collapses, at 12.
Local authorities said if they had the funds they would have brought 2,374 of the substandard bridges back into full service, but expected to repair only 379 by 2026.
The analysis was based on data provided by 196 councils in response to freedom of information requests. It said the cost of addressing the maintenance backlog for all of Britain’s 71,000 council-maintained road bridges would be more than £ 5.4bn.
Steve Gooding, the director of the RAC Foundation, said: “Bridges, as defined by highway engineers, come in all shapes and sizes. But even the failure of the shortest of these structures could mean a 5ft-long gap in the carriageway, and even on relatively minor roads that can still be a headache, causing disruption and possibly a long diversion. Whilst the increase in substandard bridges year-on-year is not huge… with the threat of more severe weather events linked to climate change that must be a worry for the overall resilience of our highway network. “
In terms of bridges maintained by national governments, Wales fared worst, with 104 – 8% of its total – identified as substandard.
Planning directors said there was a shortage of qualified bridge inspectors and engineers, as well as budget constraints.