Work to secure the long-term future of a vital bridge in Kendal will not be completed until next summer – more than six months later than originally planned – it has emerged. 

Red-faced council chiefs made the admission at a full meeting of Cumbria County Council (CCC), where it was revealed that the lengthy delay to £740,000 project to properly fix Victoria Bridge – which was severely damaged during Storm Desmond in 2015 – was down to the two sudden closures during July and August.

The council was forced to close the bridge – which carries the arterial A6 road through the town – first in July for two weeks, then for another week in August due to heavy rainfall causing further damage to the 150-year-old structure.

The closures – during which tonnes of grout bags and rock armour installed to shore up the bridge – caused traffic chaos across Kendal and sparked anger among town businesses and politicians, as well as commuters who were forced to either join the queues of traffic or embark on lengthy diversions.

CCC had hoped to complete the work by the end of September, but the target date was pushed into October following the first closure. 

However, councillors were told that the “environmental window” for its contractors, Story Contracting, to access the river and undertake the work had been “lost” due to the heavy rainfall this summer.

CCC has been blasted by business leaders including Julian Rayner, one of the owners of Lakeland Limited – whose drivers have faced a 30-mile diversion as a result of the closures – and Kendal BID manager Sarah Williams for failing to tackle the problem earlier, along with Westmorland and Lonsdale MP, Tim Farron.

Councillor James Airey, the Conservative opposition leader who has also criticised the council for taking years to sort the problem, tackled cabinet member for highways and transport, Cllr Keith Little at the meeting, which took places just yards from the bridge.

Cllr Airey said: “We are nearly at that four-year mark. Victoria Bridge in Kendal has again been closed in the summer causing absolute chaos.

“I understand it's not going to be properly fixed until next summer. If that's the case what the heck's going to happen when it pees it down in winter?

"Can we have some reassurance that businesses and residents in Kendal, plus those needing to use the town if the M6 is closed, will have the access they need?”

Cllr Little argued that Victoria Bridge was fixed immediately after Storm Desmond, when the bridge was closed for the first time in January 2016, and that the two summer closures had been made in “safety grounds”.

He said damage to the bridge was worse than expected and was further undermined by heavy rain, causing the timetable to slip because of requirements by the Environment Agency about when work can take place in rivers.

"What we are doing at the moment is making the bridge winter safe and putting in the work we need to do which will hopefully keep the bridge open throughout the coming months,” added Cllr Little.

“I can only apologise.”

Ironically, CCC, the Environment Agency and Story Contracting Limited had just kicked off the £740,000-worth of structural work before the first of the two summer closures.

Fears are now high that the bridge will be closed yet again during the winter if there is further heavy rainfall, and that CCC may be forced to progress plans to make neighbouring Stramongate Bridge two-way to address traffic flow through the town.

The debacle has led to increasing calls for a northern relief road for the town.

Last month CCC confirmed it had prepared an application to the Department for Transport (DfT) for ‘feasibility funding’ for the Kendal Northern Development Route.

The new road would connect the A591 and the A6 and in a bid to ease congestion by diverting traffic around the town and create opportunities for new business development.

The new route would also help to tackle congestion when the M6 is closed between junctions 40 and 36 due to accidents, says its backers.

However, even if the project secures financial backing it is likely to have a rough ride through the planning process, with strong opposition likely from residents living near the route.

Additional reporting by Ellis Butcher, Local Democracy Reporter