THE troubled floating bridge, beset with problems from the day it hit the water, could become the subject of a legal dispute.

The Isle of Wight Council could pursue legal action against Burness Corlett Three Quays (BCTQ), which provided the technical specification for the bridge, and said the vessel did not meet the requirements it put forward.

Floating Bridge No.6 launched in May 2017 but had to be withdrawn from service after less than 48 hours after suffering an electrical fault in the middle of the river, leaving passengers stranded on board for hours and having to wade through the water. 

The new bridge is the latest incarnation of a 160-year-old link between Cowes and East Cowes. The chain-link ferry travels across a 80m stretch of water, and has been operated by the council for 120 years. 

Isle of Wight County Press: What changes have been made to Floating Bridge 6, since it came into service?What changes have been made to Floating Bridge 6, since it came into service?

Council leader Cllr Dave Stewart said the latest bridge did not fit the requirements drawn up by the council.

He said: “That’s partly why we are having issues with it. That’s my view, but that will be tested in a legal environment.”

The council are at the beginning of a legal process, which could see the designers taken to court if mediation is unsuccessful. 

Cllr Stewart said: “I’d like people to recognise what they did or didn’t do, and appreciate the impact that had on the community. I’d like a good bridge, one that’s good and reliable. I don’t think it’ll ever be perfect. We do recognise that nothing runs perfectly all the time.”

In a statement, BCTQ said it was a world-leading naval architecture, marine and electrical engineering consultancy that had been established for over 60 years.

“During this time BCTQ has provided technical advice on a number of similar assignments operating in the UK, “ it said.

“At the outset of the Floating Bridge 6 project, BCTQ entered into a technical consultancy agreement with the Isle of Wight Council.

“Under that agreement, BCTQ was required to review the existing floating bridge, and provide a technical specification for a replacement.

“That technical specification included a broad concept of a new floating bridge, including a statement of requirements.

“BCTQ were also required to provide technical support to the IW Council in a number of ways throughout the build process, all of which was discharged to a high degree of care and skill.

“BCTQ was not responsible for the design of the floating bridge.

“Moreover, BCTQ did not build it, and BCTQ does not operate it.

“As a consequence, it would not be appropriate for BCTQ to comment on matters relating to the design, construction or operation of the floating bridge.”

Further improvements needed

The problems that plagued the bridge cost more than £6.4 million according to a report published in November by the Solent Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) — which funded the original £3.2 million cost of the bridge.

Additional money spent on the bridge included £500,000 on remedial works and £539,000 on a replacement launch service. A barge is also required to push the bridge against the tide, costing £192 an hour. 

Cllr Stewart said the council would cost three different options to reduce the need for the pushboat — including a change to the hydraulic system or installing small side thruster engines on the bridge to push against the tide.

“The third option is to buy our own pushboat," he said.

The council also considered buying a passenger launch for times when the bridge was taken out of service.

Residents on both side of the River Medina have complained about noise — particularly late at night. Cllr Stewart said the council had already reduced the noise by ten decibels, but work continued to reduce this further.

He said: “The chains are old, and they are noisy because they are old. They are noisy because there is not enough insulation in the hull of the vessel to reduce that noise. So new chains with insulation will have a positive impact on the noise of the bridge.”

The floating bridge is under an extended warranty. If the council did try to return the bridge, it said the LEP could ask for the money back. 

Cllr Stewart said: “We can’t just go giving it back. If you’re sitting on the LEP board what are you going to do with a floating bridge? You wouldn’t accept it.”

When problems with the bridge first came to light, many criticised the council for taking a long time to sort out the issues, and the bridge was taken out of service for weeks at a time.

Cllr Stewart said: “I’m not going to excuse the council on this, I think we could have moved quicker as the facts unfolded. But we are where we are.”

Isle of Wight County Press: The bridge went out of service, sometimes for up to weeks at a time.The bridge went out of service, sometimes for up to weeks at a time.

No political oversight

At the time the bridge was designed, the council was run by the Independents, led by Cllr Ian Stephens. 

Cllr Stewart said: “When you agree multi-million pounds into a project, you should have a proper management board overseen by members who can ask questions.

"The questions being asked now should have been asked then.”

There was no political oversight of the design, and Cllr Stephens said this was left to the officers, who were the experts.

Cllr Stephens said: “I don’t think anything I could have done would have added any value. I don’t know about other people.

“You rely on their professional advice.”

He added: “I think, even with hindsight, we could not have averted any of the issues that came to light.”

Stakeholders: 'Bridge should be scrapped'

The Floating Bridge Stakeholders Group said 71.7 per cent fewer pedestrians with ‘economic potential’ now used the bridge, compared to 2014. This excluded commuters and only looked at passengers likely to spend money in either town.

They argued the bridge would never be fit for purpose, and should be scrapped and replaced entirely.

In a response to the Solent LEP, they said: “The council needs to acknowledge enough is enough. Throwing more money at it is wasteful, where as scrapping and starting again may be more economical. This will cost the taxpayer millions more either way.”

The number of passengers that use the bridge, whether by car or on foot, has dropped significantly since the new vessel came into action. The number of foot passengers halved in 2017 from 22,030 to 11,753. 

More than 26,000 cars used the crossing in June 2016, whereas only 17,374 crossed in June 2018.

The stakeholders group argued the time to cross the Medina had more than doubled — at times taking more than 23 minutes.

Earlier this month, the group that runs the Floaty Finder website said the bridge was running so slowly, their algorithms thought it had stopped entirely. 

'We relied on it' — shop owners blames closure on bridge

A SHOP owner who closed her business after more than two decades in East Cowes said the Floating Bridge was to blame.

Angela Booth ran Value4U on Castle Street for 22 years with her husband, Roger. Her shop also took on the role of East Cowes tourist information centre.

Isle of Wight County Press: Angela Booth outside her former shop, Value4u.Angela Booth outside her former shop, Value4u.

She said: “Closing the business was the hardest decision we have ever made. We could see the footfall depleting. We knew the high streets were battling, but we’d been through recessions, we’d been through floods. But with the Floating Bridge, footfall was not here every single day, which we relied on.”

She said since she had shut up shop, at least four other businesses had followed suit.

However, council leader Cllr Dave Stewart said: “I think some of it is down to your business case. I haven't seen Waitrose close. It will have an effect but I don't think you can put it all down to the bridge.”

Meanwhile, a resident who lives next to the bridge said the noise was so unbearable, he would soon be forced to move.

Noel Brooks has lived on the River Medina for eight years. He said: “Sometimes the noise at nighttime is like someone has got a big mallet and is hitting the hull of the ship, but it’s just the chains.

Isle of Wight County Press: Noel Brooks has lived next to the bridge for eight years.Noel Brooks has lived next to the bridge for eight years.

“It’s just noise, and we are fed up. I’d like to meet the person who says the noise is acceptable.”

Councillor for Cowes Medina, Lora Peacey-Wilcox said the impact of the bridge had been unacceptable.

She said: “The economy both sides has suffered dreadfully. People used to enjoy popping to Cowes for food and drink, and likewise Cowes residents used to nip across to Waitrose on a regular basis. This has dramatically declined.

“From having to wait longer, uncertainty, added to the fact pedestrians now pay; the necessity of having to load and unload passengers and cars separately have all had a negative impact.

“Quite simply, and with a heavy heart, Floating Bridge 6 will never be fit for purpose, it is too large, and too heavy for this crossing.”

Councillor for East Cowes, Karl Love, has previously backed the return of the old bridge.

He said: “If it were possible to bring back the old bridge, even if it was only a temporary solution until the new bridge issues are resolved, then it would go some way to restoring confidence in the service.”

He said he did not know if it would be feasible, but he was prepared to listen to the different options.

He said it was a mistake to sell off the old bridge before it was known whether the new one would work properly.