By John Elworthy
Monday, March 4, 2013
WISBECH could be plunged into chaos handling an extra 17,000 vehicles a day if, as expected, strikers close Cross Keys Swing Bridge at Sutton Bridge for seven days from Sunday.
Public services union UNISON says a ballot of members has voted in favour of industrial action “both short of and including strike action”.
Bridge keepers will walk at midnight on Saturday and not return for seven days meaning closure of the ‘gateway to Lincolnshire’ across the Nene.
Approximately 17,000 vehicles who cross between Norfolk and Lincolnshire each day will find the only viable option to be through Wisbech.
A Unison spokesman said: “This will be the first set of strikes in a sustained period of rolling action.”
The strike action follows an ongoing dispute over proposed changes by Lincolnshire County Council to bridge keepers’ terms and conditions.
The union says the new terms and conditions are due to come into force on Sunday and would mean a loss in take home pay of 13 and a half per cent for their bridge keeper members.
“The erosion of their terms and conditions includes the loss of weekend enhancements and paid breaks,” said the spokesman.
“The two bridge keepers earn £18,453 a year and the bridge supervisor earns £22,958 a year and need their weekend enhancements to make ends meet.”
Unison say the bridge is staffed seven days a week 24 hours a day in order to keep both road and river traffic flowing.
“In addition to working unsociable hours the bridge keepers are also on-call four hours before and after their shift starts and ends,” he said.
“They are not paid for this yet are required to live within a 10 mile radius of the bridge”.
Unison steward Tom Street who works on the bridge said “our families can’t afford for us to take such a dramatic cut in our pay.
“Everyone is feeling the pinch with these austerity measures and the cost of living is rising each year. We have suffered a three year pay freeze and now the council want to cut our pay further”.
Unison claims the council will make just £11,500 a year savings from these changes “which is less than the county councillors’ meal bills which amount to £22,000.
“This is very little money to Lincs County Council with a budget of almost a £1billion, but is a lot of money to the staff concerned.
“Pickets will be in operation on each day of the strike and Unison urges members of the public to come along and show their support.”
Lincolnshire County Council confirmed tonight they are aware of the strike threat and are currently preparing a statement.
County councillor Chris Brewis represents Sutton Bridge on Lincs County Council and he said tonight that as far as he was concerned priority has to be given to shipping.
“It’s some medieval thing as far as I am aware,” he said. “If there are no operatives then the bridge stays open- which means closed to road traffic.”
He said the bridge was a “complicated piece of machinery” and so far as he knew there would be issues if it remained open for long periods.
“Clearly there could be enormous problems to the local economy,” he said. “Hundreds work on the food plants one side and many travel to Kings Lynn and Terrington whilst many travel the other direction to work.
“It is mind boggling to consider the number of vehicles who use the bridge- the affect could be catastrophic. It wouldn’t or indeed couldn’t be solved by a ferry.”
Cllr Brewis said the only time he recalled the bridge remaining open for a long period was when a boat in 1998, turning, “broke its back and shut the river. An accident though is one thing; this is another but as far as I am aware the river has preference.”
Sutton bridge district and parish councillor Michael Booth said tonight if the authorities keep the river open “it will be absolutely terrible for motorists and drivers and not good either for Wisbech”.
Cllr Booth said a short period of closure of the bridge in 2000 during the fuel dispute – when the road was blocked by protesting hauliers- caused jams back to Kings Lynn in one direction and Fosdyke in the other.
“I do believe though the law requires boats to have priority,” he said.
Lincs County Council is expected to provide a more detailed response on Tuesday.
The hydraulic swing bridge was opened in 1897 and originally carried road and rail traffic across the Nene.
In 1965 it became a road bridge only and has always given priority to river traffic. It is only open a few times a week to allow shipping into Wisbech.