FEARS that the closure of a footbridge link at a popular Ross-shire beauty spot could drag on indefinitely have grown after a report recommended a replacement costing £90,000.
A report seen by the Ross-shire Journal shows engineers recommend a complete replacement of the 25m-bridge across the River Peffery near the mouth of the Cromarty Firth.
The bridge, part of a long-established walking route, was closed by Highland Council in the summer because of public safety fears.
Fears for its future were compounded locally by concerns about flood prevention work being carried out by the council in the area, involving the removal of vegetation which the local authority insists is essential and will have no impact on wildlife.
Dingwall Community Council has kept the issue in the spotlight and, having seen a report compiled last month by consulting engineers Fairhurst, is now concerned the issue may drag on given Highland Council’s cash-strapped status.
The report concludes the bridge is "structurally failing and should be deemed an unsafe structure with a collapse a potential possibility".
As the footbridge is within a high flood risk area, it’s recommended the replacement should be designed "above the one-in-200 year storm event flood level with allowance for climate change".
Design options put forward range in price from £90,000 to £129,450.
Community councillor Jack Shepherd said: "I’m surprised that the bridge has been condemned. They have recommended removal of the structure as soon as possible. The concern is that everything Highland Council gets its hands on takes an age to sort out.
"There’s a real fear that we could end up without a bridge for a considerable period of time. There has been one over the river for 100 years. It’s part of the Round Dingwall walk."
Dingwall and Seaforth councillor Graham Mackenzie said: "There are a number of costed options and now the task is to secure funding for the replacement which may not be easy in the current climate but is definitely something I shall be pushing for."
Dingwall-based MSP Kate Forbes said: "Ferry Point isn’t just a nice wee walk for locals, it has huge significance further afield. This is the most northern canal in Britain, designed by Telford. That is why it is important that the bridge is repaired as quickly as possible. I don’t think anybody would dispute that and I know that there are structural problems that have got to be resolved first. This is an issue that I know my colleague Councillor Graham Mackenzie is working hard on."
The community council had earlier voiced concern about vegetation stripped from the canal bank as part of flood prevention work.
Some regular walkers were also worried about the loss of birdlife habitat and the visual impact.
It’s understood that poplar trees fringing nearby Jubilee Park are also being targeted for removal.
The community council has complained about a lack of consultation over the issue as it says the area is on land owned by the Dingwall Common Good Fund.
Community council member Sara-Lynn Thain said: "I think we’re all in agreement that it seems drastic to cut them all but we’ve been told some are dead and they are stopping horse chestnut trees from growing and the root plate could cause damage to the flood embankment. I think it’s also safe to say, we feel that if the flood defences had been maintained over time there would be no need for such a drastic fell of all the trees on the bank. It seems to often be a drastic all or nothing response from the Council.
"Unfortunately, it was the same approach two years ago when they cut all the bushes from Ferry Point car parking area instead of pruning back. It just left a wide open area for weeks to grow and looked very untidy."
She said volunteers in Dingwall worked for months to improve the appearance of the area in summer. She said the community council had been doing a lot of work at the Ferry Point picnic area to remove old benches, laying on concrete plinths for new benches and purchasing of durable recycled plastic timber-effect seats and benches.
Money was raised from various sources including the community council’s own budget and at least one charitable organisation.