Battle of Tadcaster Bridge leaves bitter taste

Tadcaster's Grade II listed road bridge collapsed during the December floods.
Tadcaster's Grade II listed road bridge collapsed during the December floods.
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The flood-hit town is finally set to be reconnected, but bad blood remains. Grant Woodward reports.

I AM standing in the heart of Tadcaster, looking across the still swollen River Wharfe to the shops and homes on the other side. But where a few weeks ago it would have taken me all of a minute on foot to reach them, I must instead wait for a shuttle bus that will embark on a six-mile trip to take me there.

Since the December floods washed away the Grade II listed road bridge spanning its two sides, Tadcaster has been a town torn in two.

“It’s like an army operation getting from one side to the other,” says Irene Bulmer, a sprightly 71-year-old embarking on a shopping trip, as we head on to the A64 in a free shuttle bus provided by North Yorkshire County Council before doubling back on ourselves and heading down the southbound carriageway to reach Tadcaster East.

“The supermarket and medical centre are on one side and the pharmacy, banks and everything else on the other. All the schools are there too, it must be horrendous for parents.”

To outsiders, the situation might appear more than a little puzzling – not least as a temporary footbridge was quickly sourced to allow the two sides of the town to be reconnected while repairs to the old bridge were carried out. But then they don’t know the unique politics at play in this small market town.

The reason for the delay – and that 12-mile round trip – is that the ideal site for the temporary bridge happened to be on land owned by the Samuel Smith’s Brewery which dominates the town. As such, it required permission from present owner Humphrey Smith before it could go ahead.

Yet Mr Smith was reluctant to give the green light, leaving residents and traders alike in limbo and the town cut in half. He insisted the £300,000 cost of the temporary bridge didn’t represent a good use of public funds and that poor maintenance by the county council was to blame for the collapse of the old one, a claim they deny.

“Every day that goes by it’s costing traders money which they can ill afford to lose having been flooded, and it’s hugely frustrating for residents as well,” says local MP Nigel Adams.

“It’s a 12-mile round trip by bus and a lot of people won’t bother doing that, so that hits trade in the town significantly. You can already see footfall is down, despite many of the shops being open for business.”

The next twist in the saga saw Mr Smith say he would allow a footbridge on his land, but only if he was given a say in the repair of the old bridge. For many residents who feel his interventions have become all too commonplace down the years, this was the final straw.

A highly-charged public meeting at the town’s Riley-Smith Hall witnessed calls for a boycott of Sam Smith’s pubs in protest. A petition calling on Mr Smith to allow his land to be used collected thousands of signatures.

One resident tells me the brewery owner has been “holding the town to ransom”. Another adds: “He’s been like this for the 26 years we’ve lived here.”

Few of those I talk to want to give their names. Local councillor Chris Metcalfe explains that it’s because so many in Tadcaster are reliant on Samuel Smith’s. They lease their business premises from the company, live in a house it owns, or depend on it for their pension.

“We’ve lived with this for so long that we just think, ‘Oh, it’s Humphrey again’,” he says. “It’s in our DNA. People have become accustomed to how the town is and think it’s never going to change. That’s enormously sad. We feel we’re living in a community that’s heading to oblivion.”

It would be fair to say that Selby District Council and Humphrey Smith have history. A dispute over ownership of the town’s car park took a decade to settle in the courts and cost the council a considerable sum. Yet Mr Smith – the custodian of a family brewery first established by his ancestors in the 18th century – is also a generous benefactor who has helped fund local causes including the town’s impressive swimming pool.

“If Mr Smith was more open he could be a great philanthropist for Tadcaster and leave a tremendous legacy,” says Chris Metcalfe. “But at the moment he’s leaving it in a timewarp.

“He sees himself as a guardian of the green belt and the town’s heritage. I’ve great sympathy with his views and it’s a good job people like him are around. But regrettably with Humphrey there seems no room for compromise.

“As the major landowner he has a number of sites that would be ideal for housing, but he thinks the town is large enough already. We’re a town of 7,000 with an ageing population. We need that renewal with young people coming in and raising families but there is nowhere for them to live. We’re seeing it again with the bridge. He puts bricks and mortar before the wellbeing of the people who live here.”

Mr Smith insists the old road bridge should be rebuilt with wider pavements to meet the modern needs of prams and wheelchairs. It is a valid point, but Mr Metcalfe says the funding is simply not available to do that. He believes the Government would be willing to pay for the road bridge to be repaired and strengthened, and for a permanent footbridge to be constructed alongside it.

Business owners who have seen their customers dry up during the impasse are similarly unimpressed. “It’s shocking really,” says Melvin Pratt, owner of Calcaria Carpets on the cut-off eastern side of the town. “The most amazing thing is that he owns a lot of the properties that the affected businesses are in. You would think it would be in the brewery’s interests for people to be able to get to them.”

Martin Marner, who runs the animal supplies shop next door, is scathing about Mr Smith’s attempt to strike a deal. “He said it because he knew it would put a spanner in the works. He thinks that bridge and the whole town belong to him.”

However, it now seems the stumbling block presented by Mr Smith’s objections has finally been overcome. The authorities have announced that a temporary footbridge will be erected from the car park of the town’s bus station, making use of land owned by the town and district councils as well as the local football club.

Mr Smith was unavailable for comment. However, his company has said he was simply seeking assurances about the old road bridge. He was concerned that if the footbridge, which he says “won’t be a thing of beauty”, were built in isolation, the public pressure to retain it after the restoration would be considerable.

As a result, he would only agree to a temporary footbridge being sited on brewery land if the design and funding of the restoration of the listed bridge was agreed with him and the town first.

But some in Tadcaster believe Humphrey Smith has gone too far this time. “I really do think he has overstepped the mark,” says Chris Metcalfe. “Everyone came together after the floods, but they won’t forget the hurdles he put in the way.”