Work has officially begun on the new road which will connect North West Preston to the M55 motorway.
A turf-cutting ceremony marked the moment that the blueprint for the so-called Preston Western Distributor scheme came off the drawing board and into reality.
Machinery had, in fact, already beaten the dignitaries to the honour of turning the first sod, having recently rolled onto what will be the central part of the two-and-a-half mile route.
When the project is completed in 2023, a dual carriageway will run from the A583/A5085 Riversway and Blackpool Road in Preston through to a new junction on the M55 at Bartle. Two adjoining link roads – one through to Lightfoot Lane and another connecting to Cottam – will also be created.
The long-mooted scheme has been designed to facilitate the building of 5,300 new homes in North West Preston in the two decades up to the mid-2030s. Around half that number have so far been granted planning permission and more than 1,000 have already been built.
Preston City Council leader Matthew Brown defended the need for the new homes – and the road schemes that have to accompany them.
“At least 30 per cent of the homes will be affordable on most of these developments. We’ve got people on the housing waiting list and we’ve got to get them into homes they can afford,” Coun Brown said.
“I think we’ve got the balance right – ultimately, we do need more homes and more people to come and live here and make a contribution to the city.
“There are a number of positives to [the road building] – there’s going to be a cycle network and other public transport [initiatives] and it will unlock congestion and help the environment.”
The final piece of the funding jigsaw for the £207m project finally fitted into place earlier this month when the government confirmed its £30m contribution.
Around £56m will be paid out of the government’s growth deal for Lancashire, but the lion’s share of the cash will come from the Preston, South Ribble and Lancashire City Deal – a scheme designed to create 20,000 new homes and 17,000 new jobs in the region. The Broughton and Penwortham bypasses have been funded from the same pot.
Lancashire County Council leader Geoff Driver said that “time will tell” whether the Preston Western Distributor offers value for money – but he remains confident of the benefits.
“Many of the sites that are planned for housing are really dependent on this road and the two link roads off it, otherwise they won’t be viable. It’s going to boost the economy locally and much further afield – and the link to the motorway will open up the whole place for further development,” County Coun Driver said.
And he also has his eyes on an even bigger infrastructure prize.
“Looking much further ahead, it will hopefully be a point of entry for a bridge over the River Ribble.
“Some time ago, people wouldn’t have thought [the Preston Western Distributor] was a realistic proposition – but eventually we’re going to have to build a bridge, so that traffic moving south doesn’t have to go through the centre of Preston. It will happen, but probably not in my lifetime,” said the 74-year-old.
It is estimated that the Preston Western Distributor could boost the Lancashire economy by £108m over the next 60 years through the number of jobs which will be indirectly created by the increased capacity of the road network.
An independent report commissioned by the Lancashire Enterprise Partnership to assess rated the project as “high value for money” and calculated that the overall benefits of the scheme could top £290m – largely as a result of shorter journey times.
City Deal chair Jim Carter accepts that such figures are aspirational and says they could even be an underestimate. But he insists that the current scheme is vital in the short-term – and marks different way of doing things.
“You’ve got to look at what’s happening to the north of Preston with the huge amount of development that’s taking place – and that will need connectivity, so people coming in and out via this relief road will be a part of it,” Mr Carter said.
“The principal now is to put [the infrastructure] in first and make sure we do it [alongside] the development taking place – and that’s not the normal way in the UK.
“We usually build the houses and then say the roads are congested and look at what we’re going to do about it.”
INTRODUCING THE DIGITAL DIGGERS
The Preston Western Distributor will be much more than a stretch of asphalt.
It will include two viaducts, each over 230m long – one spanning the Lancaster Canal and Blackpool Railway line, the other crossing the Ribble Link.
Other concrete and steel structures will also be installed close to the Bartle end of the route.
But when it comes to the road surface itself, that will be mapped out with the latest technology.
“Our machines are fitted with the ability to work with a digital model of the site,” explains Richard Stuart, highways director for engineering firm Costain.
“So rather do we what we used to do – bang wooden stakes into the ground – we can now control everything digitally, so the workers can have the design parameters beamed directly into the cab of their vehicle.”