This time last week I was standing just in front of car park on the Waterfront, waiting for a photocall to announce the architect who is going to build our new bridges over the Orwell. BBC Look East’s Kevin Birch was there too and as we chatted he reminded me that we had been at precisely this spot back in 2010, when I launched my campaign for a Wet Dock Crossing. And I remember it well: I had sent out a press release, rung up the journos, but on the day – which was cold, wet and very miserable – only Kevin turned up.
I was going to take Kevin and whoever else came out on a launch, kindly provided by Alan Swann at Neptune Marina, out to the lock to have a good look at where a bridge would go. But when I invited Kevin to step in, he said “not likely” and filmed me rather forlornly leaving the quayside, with just Alan for company. Like some parodic Napoleon I disappeared into the rain, to a destination Kevin and his viewers could neither see nor cared very much about. He must have thought I was mad – and was happy to say as much when we laughed about it last week.
It has been a rather longer journey to this point than the short paddle from the Waterfront to the Prince Philip Lock, and in the meantime the Wet Dock Crossing has grown into the Upper Orwell Crossings project, budgeted at £100m. The first five years were consumed getting the support of the major landowners and the councils, whose opposition in the past had killed any idea of a scheme before it could get to the preliminary study stage. But once they were behind what I proposed, we were able to get the money we needed to develop the idea, submit a full business case and then secure the money required from the Treasury.
For the past year the project team at the County Council, under the leadership of a redoubtable duo – Deborah Cadman and Suzanne Buck – have been going hammer and tongs, mapping the land, starting the investigations, and delivering the design competition that I have long insisted is vital if this bridge is to be what I know it can be.
You see, these bridges will not only cut town centre traffic – by as much as 27% in the evening peak, and not only will they release vital development land in the middle of the town, but they will also be very visible to people who live and work in Ipswich. They symbolise so much about our ambition for the future and how we value the town we love. And that is why I was insistent that they could not look like motorway bridges but had to be beautiful, as the very best bridges always are. Which is why we decided to get architects to compete to design the bridge, drawing in some of the biggest names in the world for a cold November judging session in Endeavour House.
This was a revelation. There were brilliant ideas from all five shortlisted firms. But Fosters were – by a country mile – the finest. It was telling that they spent the first ten minutes of their presentation not on design but on how these bridges should release the town’s potential to grow, to prosper, to create high quality jobs and a better future for all of us. And when they came to how they wanted to design the structures, we were all blown away.
This is a remarkable moment. Norman Foster began his career in Ipswich and now he returns as one of the greatest architects of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It is a powerful story of our growth as a town and what we want for the future. And it is a story that now the world will know about, such is the beauty of his designs and the electric impact they will have on Ipswich and its reputation across the globe.
It does indeed feel like an age since my desultory launch with Kevin Birch nearly seven years ago but I am unafraid to say that the result – revealed last Friday – has made me unspeakably happy that all of us have stuck with that vision.